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Tim Ellison, director of the Arkansas Agriculture Department Plant Board in Little Rock, said that crop reports had not come into the office as of late May. "But the state did have a wet and cooler-than-normal spring, so word is that most vegetable and fruit crops will be somewhat stalled this season," he said.

"We are just now beginning to plant our sweet potato crop," Harvey Williams Sr., a grower-partner of Arkansas Delta Produce Marketing Association LLC in Lexa, AR, told The Produce News May 27. "The weather has been wet, keeping us out of the fields until now. It's been a rainy spring, but I'm not grumbling. It delayed planting, and some other crops were lost, so we had to replant, but Mother Nature is now cooperating better."

Currently, four growers participate in Arkansas Delta. Besides Mr. Williams, they are Ben Anthony, Ernest Cox and Floyd Morrow. Although the company specializes in sweet potatoes, it also produces row crops such as greens and squashes.

"The weather prediction indicates we are headed for a dry stretch, and that will enable us to catch up somewhat," said Mr. Williams. "Harvesting should be close to normal. Sometimes we get into the fields to start during the last week of August, but we'll likely start at the more typical time of early September."

Mr. Williams said that the sweet potato market is stable, and he noted that consumption has increased over the past four to five years.

"More is going on in the processing side, which is good for the commodity," he said. "Although our business is predominantly in the fresh market, we also sell to processors. We will be ready to harvest what we feel will be a great crop this year."

Terris Matthews and his wife, Kim Matthews, owners and operators of Matthews Ridgeview Farms in Wynne, AR, also produce sweet potatoes. Mr. Matthews concurred that the rain has delayed planting this year. "We were fortunate to not have the flooding conditions some areas of the state experienced," said Mr. Matthews. "It will take the entire month of June for us to finish planting because we could not get into the fields until the end of May, which is from 10 days to two weeks later than normal. But we'll have enough planted to ensure a start at the normal time - between the end of August if weather cooperates to the beginning of September."

Matthews Ridgeview Farms produces over 900 acres of sweet potatoes, which are sold primarily to the fresh market under its brand name, "Fifth Generation," a term that reflects the company's five generations of family members.

"The market is steady, which is a very good thing in the current economy," said Mr. Matthews. "The nutritional information that is circulated by the media has helped to boost sales in recent years."

Spring rains and cooler temperatures have also affected other Arkansas crops. Randy Clanton, owner of Randy Clanton Farms Inc. in Hermitage, AR, said that weather conditions have not been favorable for tomato development. The company grows greens and cabbage, but tomatoes are its primary crop.

"Greens and cabbage turned out reasonably well this season," said Mr. Clanton. "Tomatoes will be lighter in volumes. Movement will start around June 10 or 12 and should be back to normal volumes by around June 20. The tomatoes that made it through weather problems are very good quality."

Arkansas, Mr. Clanton added, is the first "homegrown" tomato deal following Florida's Palmetto-Ruskin movement. "We start on the heals of Florida's program," he said. "Arkansas has a reputation for being the first garden-type summertime tomato to hit the market. There is a nest of small growers in Arkansas. It's not a huge deal, but it has found its niche in the marketplace over the years because people enjoy the flavor.

"We are due a pretty dry stretch of weather, and we're long overdue for it," he added. "The forecast indicates we're in for some sunshine, so progress is ahead of us."

Gillam Farms in Jusonia, AR, grows blackberries, muscadine grapes and some blueberries on its 450-acre farm. Brothers Jeremy and Doug Gillam own and operate the farm today, which was started by their father, Dennis Gillam, in 1987.

"Dad started the farm as a hobby," said Jeremy Gillam. "We joke now that while he no longer works in the company, he makes it a point to come in every day and point things out that we should be doing."

On a more serious note, Mr. Gillam said that this year's crop is running late. "The cool spring temperatures had more of an effect than the rain on our blackberries," he said. "It delayed us by about a week from our regular harvesting schedule. We don't know at this point if the crop will extend longer. When these conditions occur, we sometimes just pick more in a shorter period of time."

Gillam Farms' blackberries run during June and July. Muscadine grapes start in late August and run through early October. Blueberry harvest runs from the last few days of May through early July.

Mr. Gillam said that he and his brother are the only family members working in the company today, but he added that Matt Wilson is a right hand in the operation. "Matt helps to manage the fields," said Mr. Gillam. "He has been with us for eight years and is like a family member today."

Despite the later-than-normal start this year, Gillam Farms is anticipating a high-quality crop of berries and grapes.

(For more on the Arkansas deal, see the June 8 issue of The Produce News.)