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Chualar grower controls costs with 80-inch beds

Eighty-inch beds, combined with skilled, hands-on management and precision agriculture technology, point to more profitable vegetable growing for American Farms Inc. in California’s Salinas Valley.

Israel Morales Sr., ranch manager for American Farms at Chualar, says of the 6,000 acres they farm, mostly around his headquarters, about 4,500 acres, including 2,000 farmed organically, are on 80-inch beds.

The crop mix ranges from head lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower to baby vegetables, spinach and specialty leaf lettuces.

The affable, low-key Morales is not one to change employers often, but he’s gone through several job titles. He started with E.E. Hardin Farms at Chualar in 1969 as a tractor driver and stayed after the Hardin interests were sold to American Farms in the mid-1980s. Through the years, he was irrigator, mechanic, welder, and supervisor before taking the ranch manager’s post about six years ago.

That accumulation of abilities during more than three decades on the same land means today he knows first-hand practically every job around the ranch. His son Israel, Jr. continues the tradition as ranch supervisor.

Concept grows slowly

The senior Morales recalls that the concept of 80-inch beds, twice the width of conventional, was not an overnight sensation on the Central Coast. American Farms and other progressive operations evolved toward it over a span of several years.

"We first saw it being used in Santa Maria in about 1983 and like a lot of other growers, we gave it a try. We didn’t do much with it until the last five years or so when growers around here began to use it more, particularly with precision ag technology."

During the past three years, American Farms has invested in guidance equipment to get the most from the wider bed spacing. An Auto-Farm GPS system linked to satellites guides their land leveling, bed shaping, listing, and other tillage to within one-inch accuracy. ECO-DAN digital-camera systems position cultivator blades precisely in place between plant rows and allow for tractor speeds a third to a half faster.

Citing the advantages of 80-inch beds, Morales said having mulchers, cultivators, and other equipment to cover three 80-inch beds per pass saves in labor and tractor use. Less tractor traffic reduces soil compaction.

Aid to drivers

The guidance technology relieves tractor drivers, even hard-to-find, skilled drivers, from the fatiguing concentration of steering straight ahead while watching what the implement is doing in the crop.

"Our drivers love it. They are more efficient on the job without being tense all day, and then they can go home and relax," he said, adding that those benefits only come with the investment in the guidance technology.

"Another thing I like about the 80-inch beds is they hold moisture longer, and we can save one out of the four or five irrigations we make for a crop.

"The beds are a little lower than 40-inch beds so the surface has less exposure to the drying effect of winds we have in the afternoon in the Salinas Valley," he said. The wider pattern also has fewer furrows with shoulders exposing soil to wind and sunlight.

Moisture retention can also be a disadvantage when rains cause prolonged wet conditions that encourage Sclerotinia. When that happens, Morales said they adjust by having their commercial applicators spray higher rates of fungicide to control the disease.

American Farms oriented its equipment for either conventional or 80-inch beds. "We do a lot of minimum till with GPS and keep a lot of beds in the same place from one crop to the next. By raising or lowering shovels on cultivators we can go from one width to the other. We can do six 40s or three 80s per pass with a 100- to 125-horse tractor." They build their own cultivators in the ranch shop.

Plant population

They can increase lettuce plant population by 15 percent to 20 percent with the five-row, 80-inch beds, compared to the two-row, 40-inch.

But 40-inch beds still have their place. "We use them on some lettuce early in the growing season when too much moisture can be a problem for 80-inch and we need the ground to dry out faster. And sometimes packers special-order lettuce grown on 40-inch."

The wider beds require drip or sprinkler irrigation. "We were using overhead sprinklers on most fields anyway, so that wasn’t a big change of us. Furrow irrigation doesn’t get moisture to the centers of the wider beds."

American Farms sprinkles the crop up and, after cultivation, uses three surface drip lines per five-row bed for the rest of the season. Although often guided by experience and the appearance of a field, Morales double-checks with moisture meters.

The company uses transplants for lettuce, broccoli, and cauliflower, mostly in the organic fields, but some fields are direct-seeded and require hand-thinning to increase the 2-1/2 inches between plants to 10 or 11 inches.

Thinning crews unaccustomed to the five lines of each 80-inch bed have difficulty at first with the center row. The outer pairs of rows are thinned by hoeing to the furrows, but the center row needs a deft "shaving stroke" to avoid kicking soil over the outer rows. Once crews master that, they do fine, he said.

Thinning mechanized?

Morales hinted that thinning might someday also be mechanized. "Using the same principle as for cultivation, ag engineers are working on some kind of guidance eye for mechanically thinning five rows, and I think eventually they’ll come up with something."

Eighty-inch beds, Morales said "can be a little cheaper, but you have to invest much more in equipment and technology at first. Even so, in the long run over a few years, we think they will help us control our costs."

While it might be assumed that one 80-inch bed will yield twice as much as two 40-inch beds, it’s not necessarily so for American Farms.

"It may look like that ‘on paper.’ But we’ve not reached that point yet," he said, emphasizing the "yet" in anticipation of future improvements. "Other growers are already doing a beautiful job with 80s, and we are still on the learning curve."

According to Morales, 80-inch beds are in keeping with his company’s philosophy. "It takes time, but our idea is to always keep looking for ways to do things a little better and a little cheaper."

American Farms is among the nearly 100 growers who farmed almost 13,000 acres of organic vegetables in Monterey County in 2003.

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