As the California processing tomato industry trends toward more transplanting, Plantel Central Valley Nursery at Huron expects to be at peak production until May for the 2002 season.

The state-of-the-art complex was established in 1997 and ships out 100 million transplants per year, about half of that in processing tomatoes and the balance in 20 crops from asparagus to zucchini, according to sales manager Mark Anderson.

Based in two, three-acre greenhouses, the nursery is surrounded by Anderson Farms, a diversified vegetable operation outside Huron run by Anderson's family since 1973.

It produces transplants for clients around the state but caters to the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The name, Anderson explains, comes from Plantel Nursery at Santa Maria, a partner with the Anderson family in the Huron site.

“We started the nursery because we were in vegetable growing and used transplants from them. They had the idea to open the facility here to produce transplants more acclimated to our area and available without the freight costs. We benefited from their progress on the learning curve in designing the greenhouses here.”

Describing the Huron complex as “a medium-sized” nursery operation, Anderson said they are 60 miles from competing nurseries and their other major specialties for west side growers after processing tomatoes are seedless watermelons and peppers.

“December to May is the busiest time for a greenhouse, and then June to December is when we're involved more with transplants for a grower's convenience, to help save costs of seed or water, or to help in a rotation,” he said.

Client's seed

The client supplies the seed and specifies the number of transplants, their size, and the date for delivery.

Noting that tomato transplants can give growers an advantage on costs and in establishing a stand, Anderson said seed costs have risen to make transplants an even more attractive alternative. He agrees with other estimates that transplants are now used on about 40 percent of the state's processing tomato acreage.

The California Tomato Growers Association (CTGA) recently issued a statement expressing the transplant phenomenon more pointedly. CTGA said seed costs for most varieties of processing tomatoes (in a ranged of $230 to $257 per pound in 2001) are up 10 to 15 percent for the 2002 season, and it blamed the increases on efforts by seed companies to regain lost revenue due to reduced seed usage.

While during the 1980s growers customarily planted one pound per acre at a cost of about $30 per pound, the association said, prices for proprietary hybrid varieties shot up to $200 for 100,000 seeds.

Hybrids did, however, have more vigor, disease resistance, increased yields, and higher quality.

“Growers quickly responded to the increased cost with utilization of highly efficient air-planters that allowed growers to use one-half-pound per acre for early planting and as low as one-third-pound per acre or less for ideal planting conditions. In addition the utilization of transplants was being tried to see if it would help offset the cost of the hybrid seed,” said the CTGA statement.

“Growers,” Anderson said, “have contracts with processors to deliver a certain number of tons in a certain time period, and if they direct-seed and the stand doesn't come up or something else goes wrong, they are in trouble. Transplants will get the stand.”

Water, weed advantages

Will Taylor, salesman for Pantel, said “Water shortages and weed competition are other reasons for transplants. Depending on what the grower orders, a six-inch plant or a 10-inch plant, the transplant has a head start without the water costs to the grower.

“The grower who direct-seeds has to nurture the plant with all the inputs. The fact that he can start with a weed-free field and 60-day-old plants means a lot. The same thing applies to all the vegetable crops.

“It's probably most important with peppers, which can be very difficult to get to a proper stand. Seed does not germinate 100 percent, and we use a certain amount of over-seeding and germinating in a special chamber to ensure the grower doesn't have spaces in the row in the field.”

Taylor said computers remove any guesswork in temperature and humidity in the greenhouses. Infra-red heating sends warmth directly to the transplants and not the air. Overhead sprinkler booms deliver water, fertilizer, and pesticides to the emerging transplants, which get preventive sprays are applied twice a week, regardless of whether a problem is suspected.

“We also have the special capability to harden-off plants without removing them from a greenhouse. We can retract the roof and sides to expose them to the environment without moving them,” said Taylor.

Acclimates plants

“That capability, which is unique in nurseries in the San Joaquin Valley, acclimates the transplants to what they will encounter in the field. We supply plants that are ready to go in our west side environment, although we supply other areas of the state also.”

The operation goes from seeding of plugs in individual cells of trays to transplanting in the field without being touched by human hands during the 60 days or longer the transplants are in a greenhouse. The 9.5-inch by 27-inch flats, with various cell sizes ordered by the client, are placed, 20 on a pallet, and moved by lift truck to shipping racks for delivery to the field.

The lack of manual handling enhances the general sanitation of the nursery and saves on labor costs. The nursery employs 10 to 35 workers, depending on volume at a given time.

Taylor said his biggest challenge is coordinating not only timely deliveries of transplants but schedules of custom transplanters and shipping to fields. At times the nursery has to hold plants longer than anticipated and keep them healthy by manipulating their fertilizer rations.

He makes no excuses about the added costs of transplanting. “Sure, it costs more than direct seeding, but you need to consider the risk factors inherent with direct seeding. You can't necessarily put a dollar value on them. That's not to say there are no risks with transplants, but they are minimized.”

Rick Wolfe, a veteran with transplants who recently joined Plantel as nursery manager, said the transplant industry started with a few small operations about 30 years ago. “By 1990 more greenhouses were in business and today the big issue is quality and costs. Years ago growers were looking for greenhouses to supply transplants; now it's more the greenhouses looking for growers.”

Wolfe sees an important part of his role in visiting clients' fields to see that new transplants are off to a good start and troubleshoot any problems.

e-mail: dbryant@primediabusiness.com