- Author: Jeffrey P Mitchell
Working closely with Alan Sano, the farm's owner, over the past ten years, Jesse has developed highly efficient production practices for the roughly 1500 acres of processing and fresh market tomatoes that employ the use of off-season cover crops to add carbon to the soil to improve tilth as well as water storage and movement in the soil, and also, the use of a form of reduced tillage that is called strip-tillage. In this reduced disturbance system, Jesse tills only in the center of his beds in a narrow line where his tomato transplants are placed. This approach to tomato farming has reduced fuel use and emissions resulting from diesel fuel burning compared to what is done traditionally, increased organic matter in the soil, and saved the farm roughly $100 per acre since they started making changes to their customary practices. Overall, the system that Jesse has refined attempts to emulate the type of natural system farming that his grandfather used back in Mexico when Jesse was a boy.
The evolution of these climate-smart systems at Sano Farms first began when Jesse installed subsurface drip irrigation tape in his tomato fields. This method of irrigating is very precise and enables Sano Farms to precisely apply small amounts of water to their tomatoes as needed. Because the plastic drip tapes are permanently buried in the centers of the farm's planting beds, Jesse, along with other tomato farmers in the past fifteen or so years, have begun to use minimum tillage approaches that work the soil shallowly without disturbing the buried drip tape. It was soon after Jesse first installed drip tape that he began his current quest to improve the health of his soil through the use of cover crops and strip-tillage.
Jesse Sanchez has also been a very generous and passionate promoter of the system that he's developed at Sano Farms. Over the years, he has hosted a variety of tours for San Joaquin Valley farmers, and also for farmers from as far away as Mexico, Brazil, China, and Afghanistan. He is very committed to the conservation agriculture systems that he has been working to develop and explains that farmers like him “can do an awful lot of conservation and help many people in local communities with jobs as long as we have water.” This past week's honor that comes with Jesse Sanchez being recognized as a While House Champion of Change is a truly fitting acknowledgment of one of our Valley's great pioneers.
The movement toward conservation tillage seems to fit right in with two other farming industry trends - pinching pennies and protecting the environment, according to an article in the September-October 2010 Grower magazine.
UC Davis Cooperative Extension cropping system specialist Jeff Mitchell told reporter Tom Burfield that some form of conservation tillage is used for 20 percent of California dairy silage production. The practice is even more prevalent in the Midwest.
In addition, a rising number of California processing-tomato growers and some fresh-market tomato growers also use a form of minimum tillage, often to avoid damaging drip irrigation tape, Mitchell said.
The article profiled ranch manager Jesse Sanchez of Sano Farms in Firebaugh, Calif., who introduced strip-tillage for the company’s fresh and processed tomatoes about six years ago.
“I’ll never go back to conventional,” Sanchez was quoted in the story.
“I haven’t seen earthworms in these fields in years,” said Firebaugh farmer Alan Sano. Sano and his partner, Jesse Sanchez, combine subsurface drip irrigation, winter cover crops and strip tillage to consistently produce a high-yielding crop of processing tomatoes.
In addition to boosting yield, the system they developed for the 4,000-acre farm is cheaper, increases soil organic matter and improves the tilth of their silty clay soil.
The farmers took several trips to the Midwest and consulted with UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Jeff Mitchell to learn the improved management techniques they applied on the farm.
After switching from furrow irrigation to drip, Sano and Sanchez began experimenting with cover crops.
"It wasn’t always an easy transition into cover crops," Mitchell said. "It did take some time to learn the best way to manage them."
As the benefits of years of cover cropping accumulated, they saw that they didn’t need to till the entire field to get good soil-seed contact; they only needed to till a strip of soil a few inches wide.
Recently, they shared their innovative farming system with other growers at an open house event sponsored by California's Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup.
Farmers interested in adopting conservation tillage techniques may contact Mitchell for more information at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tomato producers interested in cutting costs, reducing inputs and improving their soil, received a strong jump start to planning their 2011 seasons by participating in a recently-held “how to get started with conservation tillage and cover crop systems” discussion held at Sano Farms in Firebaugh.
The open house event was conducted by Alan Sano and Jesse Sanchez and sponsored by California's Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup. Sano and Sanchez were the Workgroup's 2009 Farmer Innovator award recipients and have been refining and perfecting their conservation tillage, drip-irrigated, and cover crop-containing tomato systems for over five years with both economic advantage and resource conservation benefits. The systems that they’ve developed are cheaper, have increased soil organic matter and improved soil tilth, and have actually increased processing tomato yields at their 4000-acre farm in western Fresno County.
Sano and Sanchez started their quest for improved tomato production practices when they switched to subsurface drip irrigation as a means to improve irrigation management. Once they learned how to manage and gain advantage from their drip system, they then began introducing winter cover crops into their tomato system to add organic matter to the soil and break up their tomato monoculture. Cover crops have now actually become such a valuable and integral part of their system, that they typically dedicate the equivalent of a 3 inch pre-irrigation to get the cover crop started in the early fall of each year ahead of the following season’s tomatoes. Triticale has been the cover crop of choice to date, but this fall following the 2010 tomato harvest, they’re going to experiment with a late summer legume cover, cowpeas.
Their goal is to kill the cover crop before it grows too large with RoundUp® and then let it “melt” down before they come in with an Orthman 1-tRIPr strip-tiller just ahead of transplanting tomatoes. By managing the cover crop so as to kill it before it grows too big, they are able to gain advantages of the additional crop in terms of winter weed control and extra carbon into their soil system. They’ve increased soil organic matter by 50% since they started with this approach.
Additional information and assistance in planning and implementing these sorts of cost-saving conservation tillage approaches in the coming 2011 season is available through the Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup by emailing Workgroup Chair, Jeff Mitchell, at email@example.com, or by phoning him at (559) 303-9689.