Compiled by John R. Clark, Distinguished Professor
As most growers are aware, the development of new varieties is one of the key factors in successful fruit production. The continuation of breeding programs over many years is the way to sustain the flow of new varieties. Public programs (universities and USDA-ARS) have been critical to small fruit variety development in the South, with several states maintaining a long and strong commitment to breeding programs.
The University of Arkansas began fruit breeding in 1964 when Dr. James Moore returned to his native Arkansas after a stint with the USDA-ARS in Beltsville, MD. He vacated one of the best small fruit breeding jobs in the country to realize his dream of fruit breeding in Arkansas. The Arkansas program is now in its 57th year, and over 60 public varieties have resulted. Some of the more famous include Cardinal strawberry, Shawnee, Navaho and Ouachita blackberries, Reliance and Jupiter grapes, Ozarkblue blueberry and many, many more. The genetics have spread even further and have had a broad impact. Arkansas varieties and breeding selections have been used as parents in breeding programs around the nation and world. Two of the more noteworthy include Tupy blackberry and Cotton Candy grape.
I came to the University of Arkansas in 1980, as a PhD student and staff research technician, and had the honor of taking Dr. Moore’s place upon his retirement at the end of 1996. My thinking back in the late 1990s was that I would likely be the last fruit breeder at Arkansas, since the state did not have a major fruit industry and no industry support was present to provide for the continuation of the program. With industry and grant funding becoming imperative for research, the horizon did not look that promising. I thought at the time that I better make the most of the genetics on hand, and see what I could achieve with the program in the next 20+ years.
A few fortunate events occurred in the area of intellectual property rights in the last 15 years, and lo and behold substantial funding resulted from fruit variety royalties and use of Arkansas genetics in breeding agreements. In 2014, I shared the idea with leaders at the University that I would like to consider going to a reduced appointment when turning 62, and then continue on until age 65 and hang it up; starting work at Arkansas at 23 years old and going to 65 totals 42 years, and I figured that ought to be enough!
Fortunately, leaders in the University had the foresight to envision the perpetuation of the fruit breeding program, and in 2015 created a new position in fruit breeding, with the target to have a new breeder in place in 2016. That would allow substantial overlap between the old fellow and the new innovator. That has all worked out in a fabulous manner, and Dr. Margaret Worthington is now in her fourth year with the University.
The year 2020 brings some changes. First, I have begun my reduction in appointment that I plan to do for three years, finishing up at the end of 2022. I will continue to lead blackberry breeding plus finish up evaluations and manage bunch grape breeding germplasm (table and wine grapes). Dr Worthington will assume blackberry breeding leadership in 2023 along with her current duties in fruit breeding which are muscadine and peach breeding, plus molecular/genetics investigations, as well as advising graduate students. She also handles all teaching in the areas of fruit crops and plant breeding. It is very exciting to have a colleague with expansive enthusiasm and knowledge to lead fruit breeding at Arkansas into the next 30+ years. Being a native of North Carolina, Dr. Worthington is very familiar with southern grower needs and is learning the industries quickly. We are in good hands for the future!
In the meantime, I will keep up my pace with blackberry improvement so that our momentum in new releases is steady and forward-moving.