- Associated Press - Monday, November 9, 2015

HARRISON, Ark. (AP) - Mike McClintock would like to see northwest Arkansas return its produce growing glory days.

McClintock is the agriculture agent for the Boone County Cooperative Extension Service. As such, a lot of the people he works with are cattle farmers. However, he is seeing more and more people working the land, growing fruits and vegetables on a larger scale.

“We think Boone County could really capture some of the fresh produce market,” McClintock said.

Boone County is not without precedent as a fresh produce producing area, according to McClintock. During the first three decades or so of the 20th Century, northwest Arkansas was one of the biggest apple and peach growing regions in the country, according to McClintock. Prohibition, the Great Depression and other factors forced the industry to move west.

In the last six to eight years, McClintock has seen what he called a real swing toward locally grown produce. More people are concerned, he said, about where and how their food is grown and about farming practices and techniques.

McClintock is also seeing a shift in the thinking of area farmers. When he first came to Boone County 35 years ago, he said, it was simple enough for a person to have a job in town and raise some cattle on the side to amply supplement his income. However, he went on to say, livestock production has matured to the point where it’s sometimes hard to realize any significant profit for a part-time farmer.

With the introduction of such things as high tunnels and trickle irrigation, and the development of more conducive plants, and plenty of what McClintock said is tillable ground, more part-time farmers are finding they can make more money growing produce. High tunnel is a phrase used to describe the growing of fruits and vegetables in a green house.

“High tunnels are season extenders,” McClintock said.

The Harrison Daily Times (https://bit.ly/1LONk6L ) reports the production of pumpkins is an example of how the industry can take off. Large scale pumpkin patches only appeared in Boone County about three years ago, McClintock said. There are now about 150 acres of pumpkins in the county. Just a short distance from McClintock’s window, in fact, a large patch of pumpkins could be seen.

McClintock has also seen an increased interest in strawberry production, encouraged in part by the success of North Arkansas College and its high tunnel.

There are grants out there, McClintock said, that will finance half of the cost of construction of a high tunnel.

McClintock is exploring the possibility of forming a farmer cooperative. One farmer by himself wouldn’t be able to do much, but if six or seven group together, he said, they would have some bargaining power.

One of McClintock’s goals this winter is to go on a fact-finding trip, visiting wholesalers to find out what kind of market there would be for Boone County produce growers.

In addition to getting good prices for its produce, a cooperative would benefit farmers in other ways. In the late 1970s, McClintock said, Boone County was good blueberry country, but the industry fell apart. There has been talk of reintroducing blueberries. A cooperative of blueberry growers could go in together to buy the necessary machinery to pick them. That would allow for more production.

“Labor is always the key,” McClintock said.

While cattle farming will never go away, McClintock expects to see more produce growers in coming years.

“Especially for young people, it’s the only way they can afford to farm,” McClintock said.

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Information from: Harrison Daily Times, https://www.harrisondaily.com

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