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End of an Era

“The big, red apple will never be King in Northwest Arkansas again. That era is gone forever but its reign, in retrospect, was benign. The countryside was beautiful with trees that blossomed in the spring and were crimson with fruit in the fall. The air was clean; the water was clear.”

Thomas Rothrock
Benton County Pioneer, Summer 1974

Although folks didn’t see it at the time, by the early 1920s the apple industry was in decline in Northwest Arkansas. Many factors were responsible. Lots of people got into the apple business thinking they’d get rich, but most didn’t know much about controlling pests and disease or replenishing soil nutrients. Some growers and packing houses also shipped poor quality fruit, giving area orchards a bad name. With the advent of the automobile, independent sellers could drive a truckload of fruit to a distant town to make a sale. Not only did they cut into the fruit shipper’s business, but the product quality was often poor.

Too many apple varieties meant that commercial buyers couldn’t buy enough volume of one variety. And many of the varieties weren’t the best, including the Ben Davis, one of the area’s most planted apples. As apple-growing regions out west grew in prominence, the public began to favor the new varieties. Northwest Arkansas’ growers didn’t keep up with the changing tastes. The area’s orchards were also aging.

The weather brought late freezes, droughts, or too much rain. The narrow genetic base of local apples meant that trees were more susceptible to insects and disease. San Jose scale, the coddling moth, and the oriental fruit moth wreaked havoc, as did diseases like fire blight and bitter rot. Apples were sprayed with such things as lead arsenate and “Bordeaux mixture” (lime and copper sulphate), but these treatments left a residue.

Dried apples began losing popularity in the early 1900s. Part of their decline was due to the increasing ability to preserve and transport fresh apples. Also, newly enacted federal laws like the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 placed stiff regulations on a largely unregulated business. Should inspectors find bits of peel or seed in a dried apple shipment, the load was confiscated, the shipper arrested and fined, and the fruit reprocessed in order to conform to the law. Other regulations required growers to wash apples in a weak hydrochloric acid solution before shipping to remove pesticide residue. Treated apples didn’t keep as long as untreated fruit. All of these extra steps cut into profits.

With help from the economic toll of the Great Depression, the number of apple-growing acres declined in the 1930s and 1940s. Rather than relying on apples, the area’s agricultural economy began to focus on an up-and-coming industry—poultry.

Fred Vanzant at his farm stand, Lowell, August 17, 1984. Charles Bickford, photographer/Springdale News Collection
(SN 8-17-1984)

The Apple's Revival

A few orchardists held out. In the 1950s and 1960s growers like Forrest Rodgers of Lincoln and Fred Vanzant of Lowell believed in the future of Arkansas apples. They had new products for insect and disease control and newly developed tree stock that came to maturity more quickly. In 1984 Vanzant had 60 acres of Red Delicious and Jonathan apples. Today the family still runs the farm stand.

Apple research continues at the University of Arkansas. Along with many others, Dr. Roy Rom and his son, Dr. Curt Rom, have spent decades researching and improving apple varieties. Today modern growers reduce pesticide use by using integrated pest management programs to prevent and control insect damage. Computer programs can measure temperature, humidity, and rainfall and alert a farmer to when the trees need irrigation. Smaller trees have been developed to allow more trees to be planted per acre. They’re also easier to pick.

Today’s consumers are faced with limited apple choices. Grocery stores generally offer the same varieties—Granny Smith, Jonathan, Fuji, Golden Delicious, Braeburn, Macintosh. Gone are the choices of yesteryear. Today Northwest Arkansas can’t compete with major apple-growing regions such as Washington or Oregon. Instead, small orchards are seen as the future. Consumers are increasingly interested in organic foods, heirloom plants, farmers’ markets, and the “Eat Local” movement. As these trends grow, so too does the interest for homegrown apples.

Locally Developed Varieties

Summer Champion—from W.T. Waller’s farm near Lincoln; originally from Abraham Tull’s farm in Grant County, Arkansas; a yellow-skinned fruit washed with red; sold to Stark Brothers Nursery for $45

Collins’ Red (aka Collins, Champion Red, Champion, Reagan’s Red)—found by chance in a field near Lincoln; commercially propagated around 1886; a good-colored fruit which keeps well, if kept properly

Highfill Seedling (aka Highfill Blue)—discovered by Hezikiah Highfill at his nursery in Highfill; a dark red fruit with a “blue frost” and a tart “whang;” won a medal at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis

King David—originated on Ben Frost’s Durham-area farm about 1890; a yellow-skinned fruit washed with red

Howard Sweet—the seedling is thought to have come from Earls Holt’s Cane Hill nursery after the Civil War; grown near Cincinnati by Mr. Howard; a sweet, highly colored dessert apple; the tree has a heavy bloom

Oliver Red (aka Oliver, Senator)—originated in Washington County; a yellow-skinned fruit washed with bright red; harvested in early September; a good dessert apple

Springdale—predicted to go far in 1890, it never gained prominence; a yellow-skinned fruit washed with mixed red and bright crimson splashes


The Heyday of the Apple Industry

A Nursery Story: Parker Brothers Nursery Co., and John Parker and Son Nursery Co.

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