OK, I confess. I'm an optimist when it comes to the future of Oklahoma's fruit and vegetable industry. I firmly believe the potential for production and marketing of fruit and vegetable crops in this state has never been greater.
Oklahoma has always produced quality pecans, peaches, watermelons, sweet corn and strawberries. Stratford and Porter are known for peach production, Rush Springs for watermelon, Bixby for sweet corn and Stilwell for strawberries.
Unfortunately, according to Oklahoma Department of Agriculture statistics, acreage of fresh market fruits and vegetables grown in Oklahoma has been on the decline over the last half century. For example, 11,000 acres of watermelon were produced in 1957. Melon acreage had fallen to 7,000 acres in 2001. In 1963, 41,000 acres of mixed vegetables were planted. In 1981, the acreage had dropped to 31,000.
Despite advances in farming technology, Oklahoma has not kept pace with other areas of the country in terms of increased production. For example, California is a net exporter of horticulture food crops while Oklahoma imports the majority of its fruits and vegetables even during harvest season.
If I could use one word to differentiate California's production from Oklahoma's, it would be consistency. California is able to produce a wide range of fruits and vegetables consistently year in and year out. Why not Oklahoma?
Central California (the San Joaquin Valley) is blessed with good soil, plenty of irrigation water and a long growing season. Guess what? So is Oklahoma. In Oklahoma, over 250,000 acres of bottomland capable of being irrigated exist along the Arkansas, Washita and Red rivers. This doesn't include thousands of acres of irrigated upland soils suitable for fruit and vegetable production. Our growing season of over 200 frost-free days in central and southern Oklahoma is sufficiently long to accommodate production of a wide range of popular fruits and vegetables.
So what's our problem? Why aren't we consistent in our production? Can anyone say volatile weather? How about extreme weather? Torrential rain, hail, high winds and freeze events play havoc with production on an annual basis.
Because of extreme weather, Oklahoma cannot be a consistent producer of fruits and vegetables using existing production techniques. Without consistency, markets cannot be sustained.
So how do we reduce the risks associated with extreme weather and remain competitive? First, growers should adopt proven crop protection technology to include the use of pulse microsprinklers for freeze control, hail netting and plasticulture for water management and season extension. At the Noble Foundation, we continue to demonstrate and research the use of hoop house technology to mediate the effects of extreme weather.
Second, growers can maximize profit by producing crops that provide a competitive advantage from a quality standpoint. Certain crops, including cantaloupe, okra, tomato, squash, blackberry, peach and strawberry, deteriorate quickly upon harvest requiring harvest prior to achieving peak quality in order to facilitate shipping. Consumers will pay more for locally grown vine- or tree-ripened produce because of its superior quality.
Third, the industry must promote and assist with the establishment of additional direct marketing opportunities for growers and the consuming public. Direct markets such as farmers' markets, on-farm markets, u-pick and community-sponsored agriculture (CSA) ventures offer the grower the best opportunity to maximize profit while ensuring the consumer's access to the highest-quality products.
In 1939, John Steinbeck published his book The Grapes of Wrath. The book tells the story of the Joad family's migration to the promised land of California during the Dust Bowl years to work in the orchards.
My dream is that one day, history will reverse itself. I can see a time when people choose to come to Oklahoma (some already are) for the same reason they left in the 1930s ? opportunity. Dreams don't happen, however, without hard work. Through the cooperative efforts of the Noble Research Institute, the Kerr Center, the state Agriculture Experiment Station, the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, the state Department of Agriculture and other interested organizations and individuals, this dream can be realized.