On Tuesday, the newly installed dean of the University of Arkansas Bumpers College of Agriculture, Food and Life Sciences, Deacue Fields, got a firsthand look into how the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff is helping farmers in the region improve their farming techniques during a tour of the Department of Agriculture's facilities.
Pine Bluff's recent blazing temperatures did not stop Fields from trudging through the 200-something-acres of land occupied by UAPB's School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences various greenhouses, curing rooms, livestock farm, and other facilities Tuesday morning.
The tour was led by Obadiah M. Njue, Department of Agriculture Chair at UAPB, and included a view of its farm that houses cattle, sheep, goats, and sometimes chicken. Fields, along with other UAPB faculty and visitors from the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation were also educated on the functions of UAPB's different greenhouses, particularly ones that held sweet potato slips that are grown, cut, and sold to farmers around Arkansas for $20 per 50 pound bushel of potatoes.
With the implementation of a program called the Sweet Potato Seed Foundation, UAPB became one of the only six universities in the nation to become a part of the National Clean Plant Network for Sweet Potatoes. This group is made up of UAPB, Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, North Carolina State University, University of California, Davis, and the University of Hawaii and dedicate research and education efforts towards harvesting clean sweet potatoes that are virtually virus-free.
“The Sweet Potato Seed Foundation was designed to provide Arkansas farmers with good, high-quality, virus-indexed sweet potato slips,” explained Njue about the program that began taking off around 2009. “The goal is to support the sweet potato industry by providing farms with G1 sweet potatoes.”
Before the university began planting Orleans and Beauregard sweet potato slips, farmers in the southeastern region of Arkansas had to rely on farms in Mississippi, Louisiana, and North Carolina to provide them with the plant and that resulted in the compromising of quality and higher transportation costs.
Staff at the university conduct research into the many viruses, soils, and other factors that play a role in growing healthy generation one, or G1, sweet potatoes slips that will produce high-yields. With the information collected through research, the department holds workshops and participates in field days that train farmers on the proper techniques needed to make that happen.
One topic in particular that the school focuses on during these workshops is production management issues on the field which involves timing the market just right, proper spacing of crops when planted, harvesting, and maintenance.
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff also provides one-on-one training to farmers in which they travel to the farm to provide on-site services. Research and information for these sessions and workshops are tailored to meet the problems faced by Arkansas farmers.
The Sweet Potato Seed Foundation addresses the “teaching, research and extension” responsibility in connection to research performed by UAPB's School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences, as pointed out by Njue.
According to Njue, the program's sudden increase in awareness was due to financial support from then governor, Mike Beebe. Funding from the governor allowed UAPB's Department of Agriculture to restore units and buy new equipment like tractors, allowing them to expand their efforts in the program.
On the list of facilities at UAPB that was included in the tour was the curing room where the department stores the sweet potatoes they harvest. Njue explained to visitors that the temperature remains at 85 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent sprouting, and is the reason they are able to store sweet potatoes from over a year ago in the room.
Being that both universities are the only land grant universities in the state and a part of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, the two schools plan to collaborate on some efforts regarding the Sweet Potato Seed Foundation according to Njue. Both the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff currently work together in joint Animal Science programs, as well as the 3+1 Program which allows students to spend three years at UAPB and their senior year at UAF earning two degrees upon graduation.