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Innovation Helps Vegetable Farmers Maintain Markets

photo of cantaloupes on the vine by JoAnne Green

From seeds to planting machines to cold storage, Salinas Valley farmers are working on ways to yield better results, and racing the calendar as they do so.

Jim Bogart, president and chief counsel of the Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, said he reckons farmers will be producing twice as much food with half as many resources by 2050.

"In terms of less resources: labor for sure; water; likely land," Bogart said during presentation of the 2016 Monterey County crop report in Salinas last week. "Inputs, crop protection materials, pesticides, fumigants—(these are) likely to decrease over time. We need to become less dependent on all of those things as we move forward."

One piece of that vision can be seen in the fields of Tanimura & Antle, where Brian Antle oversees development of Planttape, an automated planting machine developed in Spain, where T&A discovered it.

"Quickly thereafter, we started looking into it and realized we could adapt it here in the Salinas Valley," Antle said.

T&A bought the Planttape company in 2014. Since then, Antle figures the machines have sown more than 7,000 acres of farmland with lettuce, romaine, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and onion seeds. The tapes and their seedlings are developed in a company greenhouse.

Antle said Planttape has delivered a reduction in employee expenses and a large increase in efficiency.

"We figure, on our operations, we save about 80 percent of labor versus a traditional transplanting crew" using a carousel-style transplanter, he said. "We're using 16 people on those crews, operating at 1 mile an hour. On these crews, we're using three people, a driver and two operators on the machine. We're planting anywhere from 2 to 3 acres an hour with this, and we're going 3 to 4 miles an hour. So, big improvement."

Antle said about 70 percent of his romaine and 25 percent of his other lettuce is planted using Planttape.

"We get a higher yield at a lower cost with romaine. Lettuce is about break-even right now," he said, adding he thinks this will improve through work with different varieties.

Machines such as this represent one reason the Salinas Valley retains its title of America's Salad Bowl. Though the 2016 crop report showed the overall value of the county's agricultural output dropped by $449 million to $4.25 billion, vegetables still led the way, accounting for seven of the top 10 crops.

A lot of that value rides on making sure crops reach the marketplace, which is where Growers Ice comes into play.

"From the time it's picked in the field, the clock is running," said Jim White, chief executive of the Salinas cooling company. "I've got to get it here and I've got to get the heat out of it as fast as I can."

White is doing this with an aging plant, and said he knows something will need to be done.

"We're going to have to address the campus at some point in time," White said. "We're not going to invest any money if I can't come up with some more technology to go along with that. If we build anything, we've got to be building for 50 years forward."

A proponent of green energy, White said he'd like to move off the grid to the greatest extent possible. He's looking at the technology inside the cold box for efficiencies.

"Inventory control systems are something that we can do," White said. "We can really make some headway there while we're looking at ways (to refine precooling). Inside the cold box itself, there's some great things that we can do right at the moment

In some cases, the seeds of the future are being planted in greenhouses in Salinas and elsewhere. American Takii Inc. has research and trials underway on a variety of vegetable and flower crops in multiple locations.

"Really, truly, the adaptability of particular varieties and the opportunity for higher yields is limitless, almost," said Steve Wiley, American Takii general manager and chief operating officer. "We look at onions, for example, the long-day onions that we breed and evaluate here in Central California and the Pacific Northwest. Yields have almost doubled in the last 15 to 20 years."

He cited watermelon, cantaloupe and broccoli as other crops that have seen higher yields due to advances in breeding technology during the last 15-20 years.

Salinas Valley farmers said the 2017 growing season looks good so far, late-season rain notwithstanding.

"The rain was unrelenting during the month of March," Antle said. "We were able to plant four days out of the 26 days we thought we were going to plant. Everything kind of really got bunched up there. Naturally, the production will be bunched up at harvest, also."

A supply gap led to favorable markets in the spring.

"This season really started off with a bang," said Jennifer Clarke, vice president of food safety and regulatory compliance at Steinbeck Country Produce in Salinas. "Markets were great just because of the weather fluctuations. Yuma ended early. Salinas wasn't quite ready."

Since then, she said, markets have leveled off somewhat.

Agriculture's ongoing employee shortage can be seen in Salinas—and not just in the fields.

Growers Ice CEO White said he "could probably use 14 more people," specifically people who know about refrigeration systems, and that a shortage of affordable housing in the region has added to the problem.

In the fields, Clarke said, "we're struggling to get people to fill the crews, which I think is typical up and down the valley and probably into other states."

At T&A, Antle said its harvest crews are full, which he attributed in part to the recently constructed Spreckels Crossing housing complex for T&A employees.

Regardless of the obstacle, Clarke said she expects Salinas Valley growers and shippers to continue efforts to innovate.

"The old adage is that farmers are very resourceful, and I think that always just holds true," she said. "Land is expensive. Labor is expensive. So it's really important for us to get the most we can out of what we've got."


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