Stay engaged with consumers. Keep testing technology. Conserve resources. Focus on your numbers.
That’s just some of the advice California farm manager Cannon Michael shared with us in a sit down earlier this year at Bowles Farm Co. near Los Banos., 120 miles east of San Francisco. The farm grows tomatoes for processing, along with fresh market tomatoes, melons, cantaloupe, watermelon, carrots, cotton and a little alfalfa on 11,000 acres of irrigated land.
As a California grower Michael comes face to face with some tough management decisions every day – whether it’s dealing with labor, consumer perceptions or new technology adoption. We asked him what advice he would give to Midwest farmers, based on his experience in a large-scale family operation. Here’s what he shared:
1) Farmers big and small need to tell their story. “My wife calls me a professional ‘meet-er,’ but I feel it’s an obligation to have meetings and outreach. I sit on our water district board. It takes a lot of time and effort to get messages out there that are positive. You have to get involved because it’s the future of our industry. We farm 11,000 acres, and that scale has given me a voice, but it’s important for all voices to be heard, small or large producers. Focus on the story of your farm and make sure it is positive, and tell it as much as you can. There’s a lot of people right here who don’t understand the agriculture around them. Just being raised in a small town doesn’t mean they understand. They’re not connected with it.
Perception can quickly become reality; that’s what we’re seeing with organic. We’re growing some organic, not because I believe it will save the world but because we have a consumer base who wants the product, even though I’ve never seen any science that says there’s any benefit to health or otherwise. I’m in the business of producing for the customer so if there’s a market then we will produce it. There’s value because people think there’s value.
2) Technology is important anywhere, but especially a farm with lots of people and enterprises. I hired a vice president of technology this year. He gets to implement all these projects that I haven’t been able to execute. We do a lot of field testing of products, working with manufacturers and university people. Guys get busy and unless you have someone dedicated to those trials it sometimes fails.
We still use a lot of satellite imagery, but now we’re looking at real time thermal imagery with farm drones. We’re looking at drip irrigation profiles; we’ll fly a drone real time with a thermal camera to sense heat differences in a field. We want to determine if there is a system performance issue or if we should start designing for different soil types; we’re working in cotton to look at NDVI growth maps.
We switched to icrop Trac, so workers enter activities information on the front end and then down the road we can do more big data analytics. We can create dashboards to visualize work flow on the farm. We’re setting up the entire farm on a wireless network to monitor drip stations with electric pumps; it gives us the ability to figure out how much UAN we need to go into the drip irrigation. We’ll get alarms if there’s an issue coming up and we don’t need to be there to see it visually. We can look on our iPads and monitors to make sure water and fertilizer rates are right all the time.
3) Educate the public about how you grow your products. In California we have highly regulated agriculture. We have to work with both federal and state EPA. We have consumers who want us to be regulated, but they’re also willing to buy tomatoes from a place like Mexico that does not have the same regulatory overreach.
A lot of times I can show people two tomatoes that look identical, but the environmental and ethical (worker treatment) footprint of those two tomatoes is vastly different. Some labor camps in Mexico use slave labor or child labor, and use chemicals we’ve outlawed here, but they’re producing an awful lot of vegetables coming into the U.S. It’s frustrating to get criticized for using water to grow food, when some consumers use their dollars to buy production that used child labor. I would feel better about getting an American grown product than something produced on the back of a child.
4) Conserve your resources. A good example for us is drip irrigation. We have some better access to water just because of seniority of water rights. We’ve seen real value for crops to install drip irrigation to stretch that water resource. We started over a decade ago and now we have over 60% of our acres in drip. With flood and gravity flow irrigation, we’re pressurizing and forcing water into fields which takes a lot of electricity, so we’ve installed the first of two solar panel fields on the farm. Now we’re powering all drip with solar energy.
We’re looking at starting a composting operation to improve soil fertility; we do a lot of cover cropping and depending what that is we can harvest and sell it or convert some of this green material into a composted product. We have a relationship with local chicken processing plants. They have waste streams we can use that are high in nitrogen, so we can use some of that to make a high quality organic material we can put back into our soils.
5) Always be proactive when it comes to your business team. The biggest black eye a farmer can get is to have a condition where it was unsafe, poor wages, or anything negative. Be very careful with chemical usage, application techniques, storage of the chemicals. If you’re near any kind of residence, be really careful so you’re doing everything you can to insure you’re protecting your workers and community. Pesticides and their usage is on the radar screen everywhere; that’s not unique to California.
6) Focus on the numbers. We do cost analysis on everything. I can go at any time and look at any single field and see what my costs are to date. Every employee fills out a time card that says how many hours they did each activity; each action is tracked back to each crop; it’s essential to know where you are at all times. It helps you analyze your operation and see if you’re making improvements, competing, or falling behind. Keep a tight control on costs and try to look a couple years ahead to see where the business is going. Make sure you have great production and yield data. You can’t control weather, but if you’re on top of costs you can at least look at areas where you can improve.
Gone are the days where you can be lackadaisical and think you can do what your grandfather did. We’re all going to have to innovate, no matter where we farm and do it with a high level of professionalism.
7) Be ready for more regulations. As regulations increase, even if you’re in the Midwest and not seeing an immediate threat, over time you will see a more regulated level of agriculture nationwide. I used to sit on an EPA board where we would see federal regulations roll out across the country, and almost 90% of the time that regulation was already in place in California. You want to be aware of what’s going on elsewhere and what the public perception is. California has a strong environmental lobby and it gets people stirred up; sometimes those things trickle down to your community.”