From the Farmer's Tractor
February 24, 2008
Don Cameron, 55, grows organic tomatoes, as well a large variety of other organic and conventional crops, on his 5,500-acre Terranova Ranch in Helm, California. Farming since 1981, Cameron started growing organic tomatoes in 1993. His efforts in the field have contributed greatly to the expanding organic market.
How did you get into organic farming?
I started out as a pest control advisor working for several farms, and over time, became more closely involved with Terranova Ranch. Unlike many farmers out there, I do not come from a family of farmers. But I have always loved farming, loved the lifestyle, and always wanted to work outdoors. So it was a natural fit for me.
We had already been growing conventional tomatoes for processing, and added organic tomatoes to our fields in 1993. We then extended into other organic crops for rotation purposes. Just like with conventional crops, you can’t grow tomatoes year after year on the same ground. So we decided to rotate the soil with organic pima cotton, organic alfalfa for hay, organic broccoli seed for sprouts, organic walnuts, organic cilantro, organic garlic and organic basil, among other things. It smells wonderful around here at harvest time.
In addition to organics, you grow some of your crops conventionally. How do these different agricultural systems work together side by side?
It’s been an education process for our whole staff. We’ve had to train them in what they can and can’t do in organics, we keep commercial fertilizers far from the organic growing area, train our crop dusters to leave buffer grounds around the organic crops, and so on. If this means we lose part of the conventional crop, we still do it. We want to keep the integrity of our organic crops intact.
During harvest time, we have to be especially careful, and thoroughly clean out equipment used to harvest conventional crops before using them on organic crops. We also work to avoid pollen flow from conventional to organic and vice versa. With alfalfa hay, we use frequent cutting to avoid pollen flow.
About 10% of what we farm is organic, and the remainder is conventional. Conventionally, we grow corn, alfalfa, winegrapes, pistachios, artichoke seed, onion seed, wheat and more.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
We’ve become more precise in what we do, and more careful, in both conventional farming and organics. We’ve reduced the use of pesticides for our conventional crops and have gone to materials that are more insect specific – these are called Insect Growth Regulators or IGR’s. We’ve even adapted some practices from organics into conventional farming.
How will organic tomato farming evolve in the next five years?
I think we’re going to see a slow but steady increase in organic acreage as the public continues to want additional products in organics. You’ll also see the whole tomato industry – not just organics – switching over to buried drip irrigation. We’re trying to conserve our valuable water supply and make more uniform applications of water.
What is your greatest challenge as an organic tomato farmer?
Marketing organics used to be the biggest challenge, but not anymore. Weed control for organics is biggest headache we have today. We spend a lot of money hand weeding – sometimes up to $2,000 per acre.
Pest control is also a problem in organics. There are certain insecticides we can apply that are approved for organic use, and predatory insects are another option. But occasionally, there’s nothing you can do and you lose part of your crop. This is always a risk when farming organically. Traditionally, organic yields are lower than in conventional farming, and labor is more expensive. This is what typically leads to some higher prices in organics.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
We can usually tell what a retailer will want based on what they’ve wanted in the past. But we also try to maintain flexibility and maintain our core products. We can increase production of one crop if demand is a little higher and lower another. We communicate directly with the buyers throughout the year and try to anticipate and adapt to market changes.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
Buried drip irrigation is one major change. We’re trying to prevent additional cultivations to remove weeds and we’re using softer chemistry in our conventional crops. We’ve really improved worker and food safety over the last 10 years as a result.
We’ve also been converting all our natural gas engines to electric engines to help reduce air pollution in the valley. In addition, we’ve gone to GPS tillage, and have reduced a lot of our herbicide usage.
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?
Our quantities are too large to make it to a local market, but we would like to get our own label soon for some of our organic products. Right now we sell directly to wholesalers.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
Consumers can’t believe the size of our fields, for one. They also don’t have a good concept of what modern farming is about. They’re surprised at how it all comes together and they’re surprised by the amount of technology we use.
A lot of people picture a farmer with a beard and pitchfork sitting on a tractor. The reality is that farming is a business like any other. We have to be involved in world markets, understand politics and make sense of supply and demand on a global scale. But it is a business like no other: long difficult hours along with a rich, rewarding, outdoor lifestyle.