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In-house research aids his growers

PCA team member says trials aim to save time and expense The in-house research department of Tanimura & Antle sets us aside from others in the produce business. We save our growers a lot of time and expense by checking out materials and methods so they don't have to do it on their own.

We also operate our own spraying department to further help our growers hold down costs, and we purchase chemicals in volume on a bid basis at more economical prices.

One recent example of how our research program benefits the grower is the way we've dealt with the problems over the years with pea leafminer on lettuce and celery.

We use data from the University of California, but we go a step beyond by defining things like how much we should expect to spend fighting the leafminer. Although it was relatively light this year, during the 1996, 1997, and 1998 seasons it was a serious economic pest.

We came up with all the possibilities for controlling the leafminer and set up our own trials on T&A property to see what performs best. We screened all the products we thought might have some effect. This is a better way to go than relying on an outside salesman telling us his product will work.

For the past 10 years or so, this program of trials in isolated plots has worked well and avoided disruption of our growers' fields.

In trials for lettuce aphid control, for example, we can let a plot become heavily infested with the aphids without worrying about contaminating commercial acreage.

In dealing with a heavy infestation, we try all sorts of products, registered and unregistered, using various rates, water volumes, and timing of application to see what works best. We also evaluate methods. Pacific Ag Research of San Luis Obispo actually does the physical work of the trials, but our PCA team determines what we want done.

After we collect the data from our research plots, we can go to our growers and say we've found something successful. Or we can say we've screened a new product, even though it isn't registered and doesn't have a name yet, and found it doesn't do what the manufacturer claims.

We've already spent money on trials and we don't have to expect the grower go to the trouble of finding whether it works or not. We often learn more from failures than successes.

It's a good way to help stretch growers' money farther. Unfortunately, many growers don't spend much on research and expect the chemical companies to do it for them.

When we got into the organic segment a few years ago, our PCA team took all the information we could find and set up a one-acre research plot.

We've continued to check out products and methods on the plot, so that now we have a list of things that don't work. That way we don't spend our time trying to re-invent the wheel every year. I think this type of approach is becoming a trend in the rest of the industry.

Managing pest control on organics is a big part of my day, but it gives us a useful perspective with the conventional acreage.

My organic acreage of 280 acres, or about 500 acres double-cropped, is only 10 percent of the total acreage I'm responsible for, but it consumes more than 25 percent of my time.

If you do get into trouble, an organic operation is not very forgiving, and as PCAs, we have fewer tools to work with. We might be spraying a conventional field preventatively for a pest with some newer product. Then across the road, in an organic field, we may see none of the pest during the crop's life.

That's when we realize we could have saved by not spraying the conventional field. But, on the other hand, when things do fall apart in an organic field, it can be very bad.

The leafminer is still a problem and even though we know which materials work, we run trials every year. We check out eight to 10 products to see if they are still effective.

A big advantage of our annual trials is they give us a data base for comparison to warn of resistance or intolerance to the compounds. We saw that with downy mildew on head lettuce. We detected its insensitivity to Aliette at about the same time as University of California scientists did. That was a year before many growers were really aware of it.

We stopped trials on leafminer in celery for a year, and I now wish we hadn't. The data provides an important reference, and every year is important.

Each of us PCAs at T&A is responsible for about 3,000 actual acres, or 5,000 acres on a double-crop basis. We aim for walking all the fields three times a week, watching for all the bugs and diseases. The big benefit is we have more time to spend with our growers. By comparison, many other PCAs handle maybe 5,000 acres of ground, or 8,000 to 10,000 double-cropped acres.

The private research effort is worthwhile because it keeps us a step ahead and helps keep our growers more profitable. It's not the only thing we do, but it sure helps couple everything together. T&A has made a commitment to see that the research is backed by the tractors, spray equipment, support staff, and coordination necessary for the best control.

Growers are preoccupied with having fields clean of pests, but until they receive the bill, they may not realize what that can cost. We want the whole deal: clean fields and growers pleased with reasonable costs. And we provide that without our growers having to depend on outside sources.

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