250: The Blog
Press Shop | 03.01.2019
John Clark talks blackberries, eats blackberries, raises blackberries, breeds new varieties of blackberries, and writes scientific papers about blackberries. He has even composed music for the guitar in honor of the blackberry and performed it in the middle of his blackberry patch.
Through the years, his research has made the blackberry patch less bothersome and more fruitful with varieties of thornless blackberries with large and sweet fruit.
Dr. Clark, a native of Mississippi, does all this work as a distinguished professor and leader of the blackberry breeding program of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. The program is based at the Fruit Research Station in – where else – Clarksville, which is two hours northwest of Little Rock. Although Clarksville isn’t named for Dr. Clark, the honor would be justified for all the good publicity he has attracted.
Dr. Clark is innovative and forward thinking, says his boss, Dr. Wayne Mackay, Professor and Department Head of the Department of Horticulture at the University of Arkansas. “He is visionary. John is a unique individual with talents across a whole range of things.
“He understands what the public will like, which is really important,” Dr. Mackay says. “He really understands the importance of getting out there with growers, and he understands what growers need. He fashions his breeding programs to meet those objectives.”
Dr. Clark grew up milking cows on his family’s farm in Mississippi, and he tells people that one of his childhood goals was to avoid milking cows for a living.
“I made it,” he says, “although not everyone would think that working in a briar patch is progress.”
Dr. Clark’s research is not limited to blackberries, although that is the work for which he is most known. He has produced new varieties of blueberries, grapes, and peaches and nectarines.
One of the fruit breeding program’s most well-known and widely spread genetic advances is the flavor found in the Cotton Candy grape, which doesn’t grow well in Arkansas but is available in Arkansas grocery stores. The father of Cotton Candy originated here, and with its California mother, combined to create one of the most exciting fruit innovations in the world in recent years.
Dr. Clark has named his most recent blackberry variety Caddo, which joins Osage, Ouachita, and Navaho, as blackberries he has named in honor of Native American tribes. The program also has bred a variety that produces berries twice a year, which is one of the most significant developments in blackberry breeding.”
The Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame inducted Dr. Clark into its membership in 2018. Dr. Clark’s brief biography on the website notes that he is “one of the country’s preeminent experts in the field of fruit crop genetics and breeding, particularly blackberries, grapes, nectarines and peaches. … He has released 62 fruit (varieties for commercial cultivation), with more than 21 million plants sold.”
That translates into a wholesale value in the nursery trade that is north of $40 million. The majority of those plants were blackberries, which have an estimated wholesale crop value of more than $400 million a year.
The fruit program generates substantial support with its broad and thorough intellectual property program that allows people to buy plants, for which they pay a royalty. “Other states and countries pay to grow them,” Dr. Clark says.
Government that pays its own way is good government, Governor Asa Hutchinson says. “When we can provide a service without going to the taxpayer,” he says, “government is performing well.”
The work at the Fruit Research Station boosts Arkansas’s economy and enhances the reputation of the state, where agriculture is the top industry.
Dr. Clark and the governor share fond memories of childhood blackberry cobblers from their mother’s oven. But Dr. Clark doesn’t keep recipes for any blackberry desserts.
“My goal is for someone to grab a box of these fresh berries and eat the whole thing right as is, nothing added,” he says. “I don’t ever even think about cobblers, other than Momma making one for me after I picked wild berries in a molasses bucket back home.”