Category Archives: California

Organic Tomato Farm’s Soils Produce High Yields During Terrible Drought

Today’s post is reprinted by permission of Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook, who is a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Long-time readers of this site know that healthy organic soils retain moisture far better during drought-stressed conditions. Today’s post offers a pretty profound example of that principle in action this past summer during California’s drought.

Charles Benbrook reports about an organic tomato farm in California and its amazing success even during last summer’s terrible drought. The numbers he includes in this article of tomato yields and rainfall are astounding in a positive good-news way for producers of every kind, everywhere. He attributes this tomato production “miracle” to the organic soil health of the long-standing farm. (Although, I suspect because it is “Northern California-coastal” it is also receiving some moisture in the way of fogs.) Then, he warns growers that if they wish to be resilient in future weather-stresses expected from climate change, they need to establish similar soils in their own growing fields.

It’s a win-win.

Better tasting tomatoes, lower input costs, and crop resiliency.

It is better to let Nature do the work for us, instead of destroying the natural systems and then repairing the damage to get the yields we’re after.
—Kay M.


Promoting Global Food Security One Crop of Tomatoes at a Time

By Chuck Benbrook

In early September I visited a remarkable organic farm on the coast of California. This farm has been in organic production for about 30 years, and its harvests of mostly organic tomatoes have been marketed through a variety of outlets in Northern California.

I arrived on the day picking had just begun on a sloping tomato field about 6 acres in size. The crop was exceptionally clean, with virtually no insect damage and few weeds. Minimal, organically approved control measures had been used, including applications of sulfur and releases of trichogramma (beneficial wasps), along with many hours of hand weeding.

One of every dozen-plus fruits had minor, cosmetic blemishing on the skin, typically where the tomatoes contacted the soil. Otherwise, the tomatoes were picture perfect. I can also vouch for their organoleptic quality, from a first-hand eating experience at a dinner during my stay. These tomatoes also, no doubt, contain markedly higher levels of health-promoting phenolic acids and Vitamin C, for reasons discussed in an earlier blog (“A Tale of Two Tomatoes,” February 23, 2013).

The grower has since reported that the field produced about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre.

Farmers in other tomato-producing regions often produce substantially more per acre.  My friend and colleague Madeline Mellinger runs Glades Crop Care (GCC), South Florida’s major independent crop consulting firm.  She and the GCC staff scout and advise farmers on pest management across about 11,000 acres of tomatoes each year.  In their neck of the woods, conventionally grown tomato yields average 50,000 pounds per acre, and in all but unusual years, range from 35,000 to 65,000 pounds/acre. Yields of 60,000 pounds per acre are common.

So what’s the big deal about a 30,000 pound per acre organic tomato yield in sunny California, when Florida (and some other California) growers often produce twice that per acre?

This was a dryland field of organic tomatoes – no, none, zero supplemental irrigation had been applied.  The field was planted in April.  Detailed weather data is accessible from a nearby weather station, which I accessed upon return to my office.

On August 6th and 7th, the last measurable rainfall had fallen in the area (0.02 inches, or two one-hundredths of an inch, i.e. almost none).  July rainfall totaled 0.16 inch, and 0.04 inch fell in both May and June. A far-below average 0.45 inch fell in April, and only 1.12 inches came in March, usually one of the year’s wettest months.

Total precipitation for the 2014 production season was 1.83 inches.  On California’s irrigated fresh market tomato fields, around 30” of irrigation water is applied to bring a crop to market, and according to the USDA, average yields are about 35,000 pounds per acre.

Organic production + 1.83 inches of rainfall = 30,000 pounds of tomatoes.

Conventional production + 30 inches of irrigation water = 35,000 pounds of tomatoes.

If a drought-weary California is forced to look for new ways to conserve water, the performance of this organic farm is both impressive and hopeful, given that it produced over 16,000 pounds of tomatoes per inch of rainfall.  On a typical, irrigated, fresh market tomato field in California, experienced growers harvest about 1,200 pounds of tomatoes per inch of irrigation water, and somewhat less than 1,000 pounds per inch of rainfall-plus-irrigation water.

How could 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre be harvested on a field receiving so little rainfall?

It’s all about the soil. Over the last 30-plus years, this field has been in a complex rotation, with ample amounts of added organic material and routine cover cropping. The organic matter content of the soil has been increased about two-fold – from around 1.5% to about 3% — promoting rapid water infiltration (when it rains), as well as enhancing the soil’s water holding capacity.

So what does this un-irrigated, organic tomato field have to do with feeding the world?

Governments around the world are urging people to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least four servings per day (the USDA recommendation is 5-8 servings/day). The population of California is currently 38 million, so each and everyday, the good citizens of the State should be consuming at least 152,000,000 servings of fruits and vegetables.  Surely, mankind does not live by tomatoes alone, but for the sake of making an important point, bear with me.

According to the USDA, one serving of fresh tomatoes weighs 90 grams, or 0.19842 pound (i.e., there are about five servings in one pound of tomatoes).  Accordingly, 1,005 acres of similarly managed, organic tomatoes yielding, on average, 30,000 pounds per acre, would produce enough tomatoes to feed 38 million Californians four servings of this vegetable for one day.  Year-round, at the same yield level, only 366,943 acres would be needed to assure 38 million Californians get their four servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The surface area of California is about 101 million acres, of which about 30 million acres are classified as farmland.  About 6 million acres in California are regarded as “prime” farmland. Over 500,000 acres of California land are planted to cotton most years, and another 1.5 million produce hay.  Clearly, finding 366,943 acres to produce enough fruits and vegetables (F+Vs) for all Californians should not be a major problem, at least not for a very long time.

For 314 million Americans, and the 7 billion on Planet Earth, less than 3% of available, high quality agricultural land would be required to assure production of at least four servings of F+Vs a day, per capita, year round.

Doing so, and getting the tomatoes, citrus, berries, and potatoes to the people who need them, including the poor, remains an enormous challenge, but not because of land shortages, lower yields on organic farms, or even persistent drought. In years when drought, or too much rain and flooding, or an untimely freeze, reduces fruit and vegetable production in one region, other areas can pick up at least some of the slack.  And through new methods to preserve and store F+Vs, the nation could (and probably will someday) create a strategic F+V reserve.

As climate change and severe drought become more commonplace, the importance of building soil quality as a hedge against catastrophic crop failure will grow.  Experience and insights gained on long-term, well-managed organic farms will provide a benchmark of what can be accomplished and how healthier, richer soil can serve as a buffer against climate extremes. And this will promote global food security, one field at a time.


Photo via FlickrCC Mr.TinDC.

The Iconic Willie Shepherd and His Antique Equipment

This photo is by Darron Birgenheier @FlickrCC. It is of Willie Shepherd, his son, and his dog, who live in Lookout, California. They are running an antique plow behind an antique Case tractor HDR.

Willie collects old tractors, cars, trucks, bulldozers and vehicles of varied and sundry description and he also renovates and runs old steam engines. A few years ago, he had a steam powered sawmill in operation, and for years he’s been showing and demonstrating his equipment for anyone who is interested.

Overuse of Groundwater in California Threatens Future Farming and Human Habitation and Requires Enormous Amounts of Electricity

As this California drought intensifies, this week I caught the first headline warning that people may need to be migrated out of areas where its groundwater has been depleted from pumping until exhaustion. As it turns out, there is little or no oversight on using up groundwater in the state, and so the busiest industry there of late has been well drilling.

Stanford is doing a series on groundwater use and policy problems in California, beginning with a great title, “Ignore it and it might go away“, referring to its unregulated use. They tell us that six million Californians rely on groundwater solely for their water supply (mostly in the Central Valley or Central Coast); 85% of California’s population relies on it to some degree; and California’s $45 billion agriculture industry relies upon it. Unfortunately, the state’s antiquated laws concerning groundwater use allow for secrecy, unfettered use, and depletion.

In that article, they inform us what ground water is:

Contrary to a popular misconception of an underground river or lake, groundwater is found in the tiny spaces between sand and gravel and rock. Glaciers left some of that water thousands of years ago, while much of it is regularly replenished by snowmelt, rain and surface rivers and streams.

A lesser known story is how much electricity is required to pump this groundwater, and as it depletes, the amount of electricity needed grows ever larger to pump from deeper depths. Earlier this year, a news reporter friend of mine told me that a large landowner in California’s Central Valley was paying 3 million dollars per month for electricity to pump water. Previously, I wrote about how much energy is required to move water in California.

According to the Association of California Water Agencies, water agencies account for 7 percent of California’s energy consumption and 5 percent of the summer peak demand.

California’s State Water Project uses 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in California, including the electricity required to pump water 2,000 feet up over the Tehachapi Mountains, the highest lift of any water system in the world to supply southern Californians with water.

These percentages don’t include the farmers who pump water out of the ground, plus other users. And we all know that it takes a lot of water to make electricity, too.

Estimates tell us that between 19 – 23 percent of California’s total electrical consumption is used for water pumping, treating, collecting and discharging water, and most of that is used for farming.

We are facing a vicious cycle of quests for energy and water coupled with our human desire to live in the wonderful desert oasis climates.


ADDENDUM . . . Just so happens PBS Newshour covered this same story today, so I am adding their fine video to this post.


To learn more, see my previous post: How much energy does California use to move water?

Also see: California drought: ‘May have to migrate people’

How are California’s Almonds Harvested?

Almonds are dominating agricultural production in California. Their water requirements have been in the news this year because of California’s serious drought. We’ve heard that they use 10 percent of the state’s water. And we’ve heard that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond.

Besides the water requirements of almonds, they have an annual pollination requirement which has resulted in a spring pilgrimage of bee hives to the West Coast each year via commercial beekeepers. Almond growers may pay around 150 to 225 dollars per hive for pollination. According to ScientificBeekeeping.com, a few years ago “it took about 1.5 million colonies of bees to pollinate 750,000 bearing acres of almond trees, producing nearly 2 billion pounds of nutmeats in 2012.” The business is lucrative for the bee keepers who participate, and the service provided by the worker bees is vital to the almond growing industry.

But, did you ever stop to wonder how almonds are harvested?

This seven minute youtube video shows you the whole process from shaking the trees, sweeping the ground, harvesting using a tractor with “Jack Rabbit” equipment, hulling and shelling. It is impressive to see how much automation and machinery is involved. (Never mind that the narrator pronounces the word almonds “amonds”.)

The almond that we eat originated in the Mediterranean climate region of the Middle East.

In 2012, almonds were a $4.35 billion crop in California, and have become the state’s second highest dollar valued commodity, after dairy, and higher than grapes. Almonds are the leading exported commodity crop out of California, with $2.83 billion in foreign sales.

When you think of industrial agriculture, you usually think of corn or soybean row crops. Almonds certainly fall into the industrial production category, as well.