Arkansan digs figs

NLR back­yard farmer finds a fruit­ful en­deavor.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - STEPHEN STEED

In a state that pro­duces more rice than any other and is near the top in poul­try pro­duc­tion, Marvin Smith of North Lit­tle Rock has the Arkansas fig mar­ket cor­nered.

Smith has been in the fig busi­ness for 25 of his 75 years. “I wish I’d started this when I was a younger man,” he told a re­cent visi­tor to his home­stead farm in the Rose City ad­di­tion of North Lit­tle Rock.

On that par­tic­u­lar morn­ing — the hottest, most hu­mid morn­ing to date in North Lit­tle Rock this year — Smith strapped on a miner’s head­lamp well be­fore sun­rise to fill a Lit­tle Rock pizze­ria’s or­der for 45 pounds of figs.

“You can’t layer them too deep,” he said, car­ry­ing a plas­tic tray that was filled only two or three deep in figs. “They’re del­i­cate and bruise eas­ily.”

“I am 75 years old” — Smith likes point­ing that out — “and I’ve been grow­ing these 24, 25 years now. It’s like rais­ing rab­bits. You bring one home. Your daugh­ter brings one home. Then you have more rab­bits.”

These “rab­bits,” he said, love his soil — a sandy loam. “I could put a dead stump out here, wa­ter it, and it’d grow back,” he joked.

Smith lives and farms on 7 acres nes­tled in trees and shrubs just north of U.S. 165 and an empty field south of a Rose City neigh­bor­hood of sev­eral hun­dred homes. Be­sides hav­ing a typ­i­cal back­yard veg­etable gar­den, Smith has 40 trees that pro­duce nine va­ri­eties of figs.

“I’ve prob­a­bly got more figs than any­body in Arkansas,” Smith said. “If any­body’s got more than I do, I don’t know who they are, but I’d like to meet them.”

Such a grower won’t be at the Univer­sity of Arkansas.

While the UA Sys­tem’s Agri­cul­ture Divi­sion pro­duces world-class re­search on a va­ri­ety of top­ics (weed sci­ence, blueberries and rice, among others), fig pro­duc­tion isn’t among them.

With­out any com­mer­cial fig pro­duc­tion in the state to speak of, UA’s re­search into the fruit is lim­ited, said Amanda McWhirt, a hor­ti­cul­tur­al­ist with UA’s co­op­er­a­tive ex­ten­sion ser­vice.

The Ce­leste and the Brown Tur­key figs are most com­mon in Arkansas, Mc-

Whirt said. “To have nine va­ri­eties in Arkansas, I’d say, is at least very dif­fer­ent,” she said.

The Ce­leste and Brown Tur­key figs are mostly found in back­yards, and UA spe­cial­ists re­ceive a lot of calls on how to care for the fig trees, she said. “It’s not a re­ally deep-rooted plant,” McWhirt said. “A sandy loam will hold wa­ter bet­ter but it won’t hold too much wa­ter. It’s sandy, but not too clayey.”

Figs also aren’t af­fected as badly by fun­gal dis­eases and in­sects as ap­ples and peaches are, re­sult­ing in lit­tle or no need to spray her­bi­cides or pes­ti­cides, McWhirt said.

McWhirt, like Smith, noted that harsher win­ters, even in Arkansas, once kept fig plants to no more than fig “bushes.” Milder win­ters over the past 12 to 15 years have al­lowed bushes to grow into trees.

A back­yard fig farmer also can help a fig bush grow taller by prun­ing off­shoots grow­ing from the main trunk.

“You trim those back, and you’ll have limbs reach­ing for the sun,” Smith said.

Smith can rat­tle off his va­ri­eties: “The Ce­leste, the Brown Tur­key, Chicago, Texas Brown Tur­key, Texas Blue, the Texas Ever­bear­ing…”

He also grows and sells bam­boo, but saves the thick­est, stur­di­est sec­tions of that in­va­sive stalk for the net­work of scaf­fold­ing he has con­structed around some of his wider, taller trees.

He once traded 100 pounds of figs to a fel­low who was in­tent on mak­ing fig wine, in re­turn for some of the fin­ished prod­uct. “He brought me back mus­ca­dine wine,” he said, of­fer­ing a look some­where be­tween grin and gri­mace light­ened by a twin­kle in the eye.

Birds — more than the Arkansas win­ter — are the big­gest threat to his crop.

“Star­lings — they’re es­pe­cially bad, be­cause they come in flocks,” he said. “Robins, too. And spar­rows. Coons. Pos­sums. And the deer. Ori­oles. Blue­jays. Pretty much ev­ery bird but the crow and pi­geon.”

At the sug­ges­tion of a friend, Smith put a hol­low, plas­tic cat about 5 feet tall and 4 feet around in the up­per reaches of one tree to ward off birds. “It didn’t work,” Smith dead­panned. Yet the cat re­mains, and he has far too many trees to cover in net­ting.

Still, he doesn’t be­grudge the birds their daily feed. “Birds nei­ther reap nor sow, yet the heav­enly father pro­vides for them,” Smith said, para­phras­ing Matthew 6:26.

What figs he doesn’t sell to lo­cal busi­nesses and di­rect to con­sumers who come to his farm, Smith sells at the North Lit­tle Rock farm­ers mar­ket ev­ery Satur­day.

His daugh­ter set up a Face­book page for him — Fig Man — but, oth­er­wise, his busi­ness comes by word of mouth.

He grew up about 2 miles away, where his father “had a truck patch” and sold his gar­den bounty at road­side stands.

Asked if figs were a hobby or a liv­ing, Smith re­flected for nearly a minute.

“Well, it’s cer­tainly not a liv­ing, but it’s more se­ri­ous than a hobby,” he said. “It’s some­thing I like to do. God has blessed me. I’m 75 years old, and I’m still able to do this? I’d say that’s pretty good.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STEPHEN STEED

Marvin Smith har­vests figs from one of his 40 trees in North Lit­tle Rock. “I’ve prob­a­bly got more figs than any­body in Arkansas,” the 75-year-old Smith said.

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STEPHEN STEED

Figs from Marvin Smith’s 40 trees fill a con­tainer af­ter a re­cent morn­ing’s har­vest.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.