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California’s Greg Wegis

Drip Irrigation and Bed Width Changes Helping Booset Tomato Production Efficiency

The Tomato Magazine
April 2005

Now that the global market for tomatoes and other agricultural products has become so competitive, growers are looking for as many ways as possible to cut costs and maximize production.

Greg Wegis, who farms 600 acres of tomatoes in California’s Button Willow/Shafter area, has recently made two major changes to his farm which, over time, he hopes will pay off: He’s switched to underground drip and has changed his planting beds to 80-inch rows.

“We used to use all 60-inch rows on furrow-irrigated land, but as we started getting larger, we wanted to cover more ground and get into minimum tillage,” Wegis says. “Because of that, we started looking at our cropping patterns.”

Bed Changes Made Sense
Since Wegis grows a number of other row crops, including cotton, lettuce and broccoli on 40-inch beds, he thought it made sense to change his tomato beds to 80-inch rows. His objective was to standardize all of his tillage equipment for the entire farm.

“The only thing holding us back was our 60-inch tomato rows, so we switched our planting to 80-inch beds,” he reports. “All of our rows are basically a derivative of 40-inch beds we were using for our other crops.”

The new 80-inch beds have enabled Wegis to standardize all of his equipment so that he no longer has to spend time moving tractor tires back and forth to accommodate the varying row widths.

“We used to have a fleet of 20 tractors on hand. Now we only need to have about 15 tractors,” Wegis points out.

The other advantage of having wider tomato rows is that the grower can now achieve about 7 percent more storage space in the fields.

“We’re able to get more storage space because we’re not losing as much space to furrow bottoms,” Wegis says.

In a 75-acre block with 60-inch plantings on one-quarter mile rows, there are a total of 520 18-inch furrows. In comparison, a 75-acre block of 80-inch plantings on one-quarter mile rows has 390 18-inch furrows.

“ This means that we’re gaining about 5.6 more acres of storage capacity on a 75-acre block,” Wegis notes.

Most growers average 40 tons of tomatoes on a 75-acre block, so an extra 5.6 acres equals an extra three tons. At $40 per ton, that equates to around $120 more per acre, Wegis says.
“We haven’t had a chance to analyze the data since changing the rows, but we feel that if we can get even one ton more per acre, it would be worth the cost of making the changes,” Wegis says.

Wider Row Benefits
Wider rows mean both more storage space and fewer trips down the rows during harvest time for the tractors.

“On the wider rows, we can fill up a trailer during harvest in 2.6 rows. On 60-inch beds, it takes 3.5 rows to fill up a trailer,” the grower says. “So that’s fewer rows and less time. We’re able to cover the same amount of ground using 24 percent less fuel.”

There are still a few kinks to work out of the system, Wegis admits. Since the 80-inch tomato rows are 25 percent wider than standard tomato plantings, Wegis has had to design a special header for his harvester to handle the 25-percent-wider rows and extra plant volume.

“It cost us a lot of money to build our own harvester and a specialized header to allow us to harvest an 80-inch bed with more hydraulic capacity to handle more plant volume,” Wegis says. “Other harvesters didn’t have enough capacity to shake that volume of plant material. They also didn’t have belts wide enough to handle that much dirt.”

Although the new equipment was costly in the long run, Wegis says he expects it to pay for itself in the long run since it will take less gas and less time to harvest his tomatoes.
The next big investment Wegis is planning is an underground drip system. Most growers adopting drip systems are contending with water shortage issues. Although water supply isn’t as much of an issue in the Button Willow/Shafter area where Wegis farms, he believes that the underground drip system will give him more control over fertilizer distribution and the pH level of his the irrigation water.

More Precise Fertilizer, pH Controls
“We’re able to use computers to adjust the fertilizer inputs as well as our acid inputs at each one of our filter stations,” Wegis says.

The ideal is to maintain the water at a 6 pH level, he says.

“ The uptake of fertilizer is a lot more efficient at this pH. All of your nutrients are a lot more available than if your water pH is tied up at a higher level,” Wegis notes. “The water coming from the water district is generally has an 8 pH level, so we’re able to monitor the pH and bring it down to a lower level by injecting acid.”

Over the past six years, neighboring almond growers have been using a pH monitoring system made by Netafin, an Israeli company with an office in Fresno, Wegis says.

“ We haven’t done any replicated trials with it in tomatoes yet, but we feel like we can save money in our fertilizer applications and increase quality and yield in our products,” the grower says.

Up until four years ago, Wegis’ farm was 100 percent furrow irrigated. Two years ago, he began switching to double line drip so he could double crop row crops such as broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. The drip system, which cost about $1,200 per acre to install, should pay for itself within two years due to the extra yield and increased efficiencies, he says.

About 25 percent of Wegis’ plantings are direct seed. The balance is transplants which Wegis plants on double line 22-inch row spacing in diamond patterns.

“ We try to do all our transplants in diamond-shaped planters because we don’t have so many problems with plants flopping over,” Wegis points out.

Since switching to drip irrigation, the grower says he doesn’t have to spend as much time shaping his beds. This, in turn, minimizes tillage providing an additional cost savings.
Wegis buries his drip lines about 12 inches.

“ Over time it settles out to be around 10 inches below ground. You don’t want to get much shallower than that because moisture wants to rise to the surface,” he explains. You don’t want the surface to get too wet and cause mold problems.”

The drip system has about a 96 percent irrigation efficiency compared to the 70 to 75 percent efficient of furrow irrigation, he says.

“ We haven’t had plugging or other emitter problems because we flush our lines with chlorine and acid and keep our drip lines clean,” Wegis says.

© 2005 Columbia Publishing

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