Alan Sano, co-owner of Sano Farm, in western Fresno County, Calif., and his farm manager Jesse Sanchez have been recognized with the 2009 Conservation Tillage Farmer Innovator Award.

California’s Conservation Tillage and Cropping Systems Workgroup established the award five years ago to give greater visibility to conservation tillage (CT) leaders.

“This year’s award recognizes two truly exceptional CT pioneers,” says Jeff Mitchell, University of California, Davis cropping systems specialist. “Alan and Jesse epitomize the intent of this CT Workgroup award and they continue, and indeed, enhance our tradition of acknowledging truly outstanding innovation and achievement.”

Sano Farm is a 4,000-acre operation near Firebaugh, Calif., where the two men have developed “nothing short of truly revolutionary tomato production systems based on conservation tillage, inclusion of off-season cover crops and highly efficient and innovative management,” said Mitchell.

The overall system that the two agriculturists developed saves fuel by reducing the number of tractor operations, cuts fertilizer inputs, reduces labor and production costs, improves soil condition, reduces overall risk, and has increased tomato yields by 12 percent to 15 percent compared to the industry standard practices that they were previously using.

Gene Miyao, Northern California UC processing tomato farm advisor, said Sano Farm has produced a variety of crops including cotton, melons and tomatoes in the past.

However, during about the past four years processing tomatoes have been the primary crop.

An important component of the integrated tomato production system at Sana Farm is winter, small grain cover crops on the 60-inch tomato beds. These cover crops are typically seeded in late October or early November, irrigated up as part of the farm’s “pre-irrigation” program for the following year’s crop, and then terminated with herbicide some time in early February before the above-ground growth is too unwieldy and difficult to manage, according to Miyao.

These cover crops have been a single species of triticale. However, Sano recently switched to barley, seeded at 110 pounds per acre.

The goals of using cover crops are high amounts of root biomass, quick surface cover with minimal initial irrigation, and quick meltdown following herbicide application allowing unrestricted transplanting of the processing tomato crop.

Typically, the only tillage at Sano Farm is two passes after tomato harvest.

The first of these operations involves a furrow chiseling pass to break compacted zones. The second is with a Wilcox Agriproducts Performer bed conditioning implement. It is used to shallowly mix residues, loosen the soil in the bed, and shape planting beds for the next season. These tillage passes rely on GPS guidance to preserve essentially undisturbed crop growth zones in the centers of beds where there is buried drip tape.

It is called “zone tillage” on permanent tomato planting beds.

The winter small grain cover crop is terminated before it grows more than about 15 inches tall, which usually is in early February. It provides some winter weed control. Sano and Sanchez say this overall conservation tillage approach also results in lower weed populations in the tomato season.

Ahead of transplanting processing tomatoes in the spring, Sano Farm uses a ground-driven strip-till implement to loosen the soil, mix in cover crop residues, as well as incorporate herbicide into the center of beds where transplants will be positioned.

This strip-till operation works the soil to only about 8 inches and leaves a firmed zone of soil for transplants.

Previously Sano Farm used a PTO-powered rototiller mulcher to accomplish this strip-tillage function, but they now use row units from an Orthman model1-tRiPr. This ground driven implement is operated faster and with less maintenance.

Some starter fertilizer is also applied with the strip-tiller ahead of transplanting.

Tomato transplanting at Sano Farm is done using a conventional five-row transplanter. It required no modifications for the Sano system and performs well in the minimal surface cover crop residue in the field at transplanting.

Sano and Sanchez emphasize that they use system management and not merely a sequence of different practices.

“Alan and Sanchez are true innovators,” said Mitchell.

“They are major CT leaders and pioneers who have created astonishing advances in CT systems for a new crop that previously has not had real reduced till practices available to it.”

email: hcline@farmpress.com