YEAREND: Specialty crops took hard hit in 2022, drought responsible for lower yields
By Jessica Wesson
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- Drought caused lower yields in blackberries, tomatoes and pecans
- Dry weather helped limit disease in grapes and peaches
- Muscadines fared well, new Arkansas-bred varieties on the way
RELATED PHOTOS: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAittL
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Severe drought and some of the highest temperatures seen in years caused many Arkansas fruit and nut crops to suffer yield losses in 2022.
July and August had less than average rainfall throughout the state, resulting in severe or moderate drought conditions for much of the state, according to the United States Drought Monitor. The National Weather Service reported that July was one of the hottest and driest months on record, with several record high temperatures recorded. Little Rock experienced its sixth hottest July since records began in 1879.
Blackberries were hit hard by the lack of water and hotter temperatures, said Sherri Sanders, White County agricultural extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
“My growers saw a 50 percent decrease in their yields in some cases,” she said. “Dry conditions also caused a spider mite breakout in blackberry plantings.”
Mite feeding can reduce plant vigor and might cause leaves to turn brown and drop, which in turn reduces overall crop yield, Sanders said.
Along with the drought, pecans faced a fall freeze event that was detrimental for shuck opening.
“Pecans are dependent on water, so the shuck opening was delayed because of the drought,” Sanders said. “The freeze we had in October caused damage to the nuts, which decreased their quality.”
In southern Arkansas, the commercial tomato crop also faced challenges due to weather-related issues. John Gavin, Bradley County agricultural extension agent for the Division of Agriculture, explained that the hot summer temperatures impeded the fruit production.
“High temperatures in early June reduced fruit set in the top of the plants,” he said. “Later in June, daily temperatures were excessive and began to take its toll on the plants. Producers were challenged to rotate irrigation application to meet the crop needs, but producers were harvesting good volume and quality fruit.”
The high-quality fruit and volume did not last after downpours in July, he said.
“Unexpected heavy rain — up to six inches in some places — in the first part of July, followed by excessive hot, dry weather, reduced fruit quality to the point that harvesting was stopped earlier than usual,” Gavin said. “During harvest the demand for Arkansas tomatoes remained strong, resulting in higher than normal average prices.”
The strawberry crop suffered due to weather, and the season was shorter than normal for producers, said Matthew Davis, Jackson County agricultural extension agent for the Division of Agriculture.
“Temperatures exceeding 85 degrees Fahrenheit and wet conditions provide the perfect environment for fruit loss and quality reduction,” Davis said. “Local producers still met demand but did not have excess production and cut the season short by two weeks.”
One fruit that had no issue surviving the drought of late summer was the muscadine.
“This is a hardy fruit that doesn’t come into harvest until later in the fall,” Sanders said. “It missed most of the heat and dryness that the other fruits and crops had to experience.”
Muscadines are an up-and-coming fruit in the state, gaining popularity with winemakers and restaurants. They are popular for their toughness and favor with the state’s climate, Sanders said.
Amanda McWhirt, associate professor of horticulture and fruit and vegetable extension specialist, said the grape crop for 2022 was improved compared to last year.
“The 2022 season was a good year for grape harvests following the 2021 season that saw reduced yields due to the February ’21 freeze,” she said. “The dry summer conditions limited disease for many grape growers.”
Peaches also fared well for the 2022 growing season, McWhirt said.
“The 2022 season was a good year for peaches in the state with fewer impacts from spring freezes than in previous years,” she said. “The dry conditions limited disease but also resulted in some delays in crop ripening in some areas.”
Fruit and nut research highlights
2022 saw further product development and research in specialty crops. A collaboration between Stone’s Throw Brewing in Little Rock, the Arkansas Brewers Guild and the Division of Agriculture brought new attention to Arkansas grown blackberries.
“The berries were sourced from Ritter Farms, here in White County to brew a blackberry-based beer,” Sanders said. “This is a great opportunity for our blackberry producers because it gives them another value-added option for their product. There are also restaurants featuring Arkansas grown blackberries on their menus.”
Extension specialists, agents and Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station researchers around the state were hard at work in 2022 to improve production practices. Aaron Cato, extension integrated pest management specialist for the horticulture department, led an effort to create an interactive map monitoring insect pests.
“The map shows numbers for squash vine borer, cabbage looper and tomato fruitworm moth for 2022,” Sanders said. “The map will be updated at the beginning of the 2023 growing season, and it is sure to be a great tool for producers next year.”
Cato shared results of his tomato fruitworm management research as well. In Arkansas, tomato fruitworms have become resistant to insecticides containing pyrethroids as the active ingredient. Cato’s research showed that diamides can provide better protection for tomatoes.
McWhirt concluded a three-year study to provide updated recommendations for fall strawberry establishment in the Natural State. McWhirt found that planting strawberry plants too late in the fall reduced yield by 15-35 percent, depending on variety and test year.
The Tri-County Pecan Production Program involving county extension agents from Lonoke, Prairie and White counties studied irrigation methods to improve irrigation in pecan orchards.
“We used moisture sensors to predict how much irrigation was needed based on crop load and to schedule the next predicted irrigation time,” Sanders said. “We also worked with growers to rotate modes of action in insecticide and fungicide application to lessen the chances of resistance.”
The 2022 Muscadine Workshop and Field Day took place on Sept. 19, putting this folksy native grape front and center. Collaborative research by the horticulture and food science departments aims to help producers.
Renee Threlfall, research scientist of enology and viticulture with the food science department, shared research measuring the volatile compounds in muscadines to determine what gives them their unique aroma and flavor. Threlfall also characterized the post-harvest shelf life of muscadines.
Margaret Worthington, assistant professor of fruit breeding and genetics for the experiment station, provided an update on the Arkansas muscadine breeding program at the event. She said that two new Arkansas-bred muscadine varieties are expected to be released to the public in the fall of 2023. A seedless muscadine variety is also in the works, she said.
Worthington also published new research in 2022 that showed it is possible to successfully propagate muscadine plants using hardwood cuttings.
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu. Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit https://uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.