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What Is a Research Orchard?

April, 2010
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University of Arkansas researcher Curt Rom and his colleagues have two jobs. As professors, they stay busy teaching and advising students and providing service to the university. But as horticulture researchers, they dedicate their time to the farm.

Jason McAfee: We are currently doing research on high value crops, more specifically horticulture. Horticultural crops require a lot more investment than many of your agronomic crops, for example. So everything we do, we have to anticipate many things for every season to ensure the crop.

Rom studies best practices for organic and sustainable orchards, looking at effective ways to manage pests and weeds for apple trees. He also experiments with organic blackberry and raspberry production, seeking ways to prolong the growing season for these crops.

Curt Rom: Many of the questions that we’re trying to understand and the issues that we’re trying to understand in an organic situation have been developed by growers in Arkansas, in the southern region. So our research is actually based on real world questions, and we’re trying to develop fundamental information that would lead to real world solutions and technology.

A research orchard differs from commercial orchards in significant ways.

Curt Rom: Our focus here is to generate knowledge. So we set up experimental treatments, in some cases to purposefully stress the trees so we can understand the limits of tolerance the plant might have. A real commercial orchard or a farm situation, they’re interested in making a living. They have to generate a profit. So they might be much more conservative in their kind of approach and application of treatments. They want to test or utilize treatments that they know will work and that will return economically to that system.

As years go by, the researchers are harvesting a bumper crop of knowledge that can help farmers in Arkansas and around the country solve practical problems, allowing them to organically and sustainably produce delicious fruit.

Curt Rom: The research projects we do now are a much larger team — where we’re including research by entomologists, ag economists, soil scientists, soil biologists — where we’re trying to understand the whole of the system.

Jason McAfee: In addition we also have many technicians, graduate students and undergraduate students who are involved in maintaining and managing our research.

And that in turn leads to a better apple pie, raspberry tart and blackberry cobbler on a table near you.