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Editor’s note: This entry was one of two pieces serving as the Encyclopedia of Arkansas’s 2009 April Fools' joke. While perhaps it seems believable that the state of Arkansas would seek to promote the consumption of opossums, keen-eyed observers will catch the chronological discrepancy of the Arkansas Agriculture Department being behind this initiative some fifty-three years before it was even established.
The Possum of Tomorrow Program was developed by the Arkansas Agriculture Department in the early 1950s to encourage the breeding of opossums (commonly referred to as “possums”) that would be suitable for mass consumption. Organizers believed that there was the potential to develop the opossum market beyond remote Arkansas hill counties and thus revitalize the economies of these struggling areas. However, the program was a complete and total failure and actually landed the state in a costly lawsuit with Warner Bros. Studios.
The Possum of Tomorrow Program was initiated by the state to capitalize on the increasing popularity of “alternative” (non-beef and non-pork) meats during the World War II years, since a great deal of beef and pork was being sent to soldiers serving abroad. The poultry industry, for instance, had arisen as a response to food shortages, given that chickens were easier and cheaper to raise. The rise of the poultry industry rejuvenated the economies of several rural Arkansas counties, and state leaders were eager to try to replicate such success by popularizing the consumption of other non-traditional meats. After intense study of the state’s natural offerings, the Arkansas Agriculture Department, on April 1, 1952, established the Office of Possumology with two aims: 1) to sponsor research into the best means of raising native opossums, and 2) to promote both opossum breeding and consumption.
For the first part of its mandate, the Office of Possumology teamed with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service (UACES) to travel deep into rural Arkansas and investigate how opossums were currently being raised within the state. These investigations turned up no actual opossum breeding operations; as Xavier Little, head of the UACES’s research division, wrote in a report in November 1953, “Our research here in Mena has yet to turn up any local opossum operations. Rather, people here seem more interested in hunting the animals—and that mostly as an excuse to drink out of the sight of wife and preacher.” In response, the team was forced to retreat from the field with only some live specimens to begin from scratch in developing a workable means of raising the animals in captivity. However, the UACES team eventually ruled that raising opossums in captivity to be impossible, reporting that “the animals turn catatonic and die at the slightest fright.”
In fulfillment of the second part of its mandate, the Arkansas Agriculture Department developed, in 1953, a short animated feature, Yes’m, I Love Possum, to promote the consumption of opossum meat. The main character, Pokey O’Possum, a cheerful animal who spoke in an Irish brogue, introduces himself to the audience as a “mar-soup-ial” and later encounters a character clearly modeled after the Warner Bros. cartoon figure Elmer Fudd, who has just failed once again to catch a rabbit. Pokey suggests that he try opossum instead, proclaiming how much better opossum is than rabbit. The hunter agrees to try it, nabbing Pokey, who apparently was not expecting this turn of events, and cooking him. The film ends with the hunter managing a large and successful opossum breeding farm named Possum Plains, with Pokey as the mascot.
Warner Bros. Studios swiftly sued the Arkansas Agriculture Department for copyright infringement. The court case Warner Bros. v. Arkansas Agriculture Department, Office of Possumology (1954) was decided in the plaintiff’s favor, and the resulting fines levied against the state bankrupted the Possum of Tomorrow Program. As historian Michael B. Dougan wrote, “The state department of agriculture was not merely playing possum—it was plumb dead once the studio executives, at one time derided by Governor Francis Cherry as ‘West Coast nancy-boys,’ were through picking over the bones of Arkansas’s dimwitted government.” With funds no longer available, the Possum of Tomorrow Program fell by the wayside. The State of Arkansas did not attempt to promote another non-traditional foodway until the 1997 “Raccoon—The Other Red Meat” advertising campaign, which failed miserably.
For additional information:
Cherry, Francis A. Goodhair Speaks: My Term as Arkansas Governor. Dallas, TX: Taylor Publishing Company, 1959.
Dougan, Michael B. Food and Frenzy in Arkansas: From the Great Tamale War to the Huckabee Administration. North Little Rock: Arkansas Culinary School, 2006.
Possum of Tomorrow Collection. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Marsupials and Rodentia Project
University of Arkansas Culinary Arts Program
Last Updated 4/11/2016
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