SWREC program associate inspects peaches on a tree
An SWREC program associate inspects peaches in a fruit breeding plot.

History of the SWREC

Agricultural research for the University of Arkansas became a statewide venture in 1925 when the legislature approved the creation of three branch experiment stations that were designed to solve problems with permanent installations across the state. Research before then was carried on in Fayetteville or on rented land that had no guarantee for long-term occupation. Because of the varied climate and soils across the state, research needed to be localized, and the “Branch Station Bill” was passed and signed into law. A special committee was formed from University and civic leaders to determine the location of the three branch stations: the Cotton Station was established at Marianna in Lee County, the Rice Station at Stuttgart in Arkansas County, and the Fruit and Truck Station at Hope in Hempstead County. For each location, local interest procured an area of 160 acres or larger.

The Fruit and Truck Branch Experiment Station was purchased on December 1926 on then U.S. Highway 67 (Bankhead Highway) just three miles northeast of Hope through donations of thirty-seven businesses and forty-nine individuals of Hope for more than $7,000. The 185 acres was nothing more than a poor, unimproved, depleted, unprofitable hill farm that was typical of the region. By 1930, $35,000 was spent for buildings, and by 1938, the value was $51,000 for the buildings.

During the beginning, fruits and vegetables were the crops of interest. The area around Hope was known for the watermelons and strawberries. By 1930, there were 1,200 experimental plots covering fruits, vegetables, and agronomic crops. Research mostly consisted of variety and fertilizer trials. The findings of cultural management of these crops proved so valuable to rural people of the area that almost 90,000 visitors toured the station by 1948. A one-acre lake, a recreational hall and two rustic cabins were built by the W.P.A. in 1939. The structures were built as a demonstration of how materials from a small farm can be used to make buildings. This was the only recreational project of its kind in south Arkansas and the facilities were used until the 1990’s when a wind storm severely damaged the recreational hall. By 1950, the rustic cabins were gone, but the recreational hall, locally referred to as “The Cabin” still holds a special place in the memories of people from the area. During the W.P.A. days, the station was ditched and tiled with clay tiles, and these structures still serve their purpose today. One of the noteworthy achievements of the early period was the release of a wilt-resistant watermelon called White Hope.

Environmental studies started have a long history with the first study in 1935 which measured soil erosion and investigated improving eroded soils through crop rotation and fertilization. The long-term soil erosion studies were continued until 1950 when the erosion vats were removed. In 1938, the Farm Woodlot Study was initiated, which demonstrated the selection management for small woodlots and their productivity. The tradition of the Forestry Field Day started with this study. Station personnel harvested and decked the logs at the road to demonstrate the growth of the woodlot from the last harvest to the present which was usually about three years. This study continues today and has been a large component in the understanding for selection management in loblolly and shortleaf pines.

From 1950 to 1960, agriculture changed in the region. Fruits and vegetables lost their place as a major agriculture enterprise but forestry and beef cattle production began to gain dominance. The major crop activity was agronomic crops and not horticulture crops. As a result of the changes in agriculture, the station was renamed the Southwest Branch Station. With changes in agriculture, the station expanded its area to lease the Spencer Tract from Senator Lloyd Spencer, the President of First National Bank of Hope, in 1961. This fifty-year lease had an option to purchase which was exercised in 1982. The addition of these 1000 acres allowed for the establishment of a research herd of about 400 head that continues today. The pastures were subdivided in research paddocks that have been the basis of cool season grass, legume, and nutrition research. The Beef Bull Performance Testing Barns consisting of 40 stalls was built in 1962, which provided a testing service to look at feed efficiency and gain of beef bulls. In 1972, the citizens of southwest Arkansas raised $6200 to build a 20-stall annex. During its peak the facility tested 120 bulls each year.

The Spencer Tract allowed forestry research to expand into Christmas trees, competition control, pest control and nutritional studies. Row crop research expanded into evaluation of varieties of corn, grain sorghum, and soybeans along with associated cultural and nutritional studies. Although greatly diminished, the horticulture research did result in muscadine culture, varieties of dwarf crepe myrtles and the little-leaf cucumber during this period. Two irrigation ponds were built to accommodate irrigation of cucumbers and row crops.

The Southwest Branch Station was renamed the Southwest Research and Extension Center by the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees in 1981. In 1979 and 1981, funds were allocated to build a new office building and other improvements. Construction started July 1981 and was completed in April 1982. The creation of a full administrative unit of the Division of Agriculture started with the hiring of a Ph.D.-level Extension Forester in 1983, which continued with the hiring of assistant professors of Plant Pathology, Forages, and Agronomic Crops in 1984. The old office building was converted into a laboratory. The State Nematode Lab was moved to Hope in 1990, and the Forage Lab was created in 2006. The Beef Bull Performance Testing was stopped in 1994, and the facility became an experimental feed lot which assists in the understanding of nutrition, meat quality and profitability of cattle operations.

Currently, we have programs in beef cattle nutrition and forages, plant pathology, fruits and forest management. These programs build on the rich history of the center to provide results that make agricultural operations profitable and create a better quality of life for rural people. Although there have been several name changes, the mission of the Southwest Research and Extension Center remains the same.