Evaluation of an Alternative Low-Input Production System for Fresh Market Tomato
The producers determined the feasibility and economic viability of an alternative production system for fresh market tomatoes. The standard production system utilized in the southeastern United States is designed to achieve profitability by maximizing yields. The system depends on the use of methyl bromide which is a powerful soil fumigant that will no longer be allowed to be used after January 1, 2001.
In the conventional system, raised-fumigated beds are covered by plastic mulch and the crop is managed through the extensive use of inputs. This system is becoming problematic, particularly for limited-resource farmers, due to limited availability of suitable land, high preharvest production costs, problems with the disposal of plastic mulch, and the loss of methyl bromide as a soil fumigant.
The project was designed to minimize the impact of soilborne pests, reduce agricultural inputs, optimize profitability and increase participation by limited resource farmers. These goals were accomplished by combining minimum tillage practices with existing bahia grass pasture. This approach permitted the production of fresh market tomatoes on land which had been established for grazing, hay or sod production, without permanently destroying the integrity of the pasture. Access to pasture can foster implementation of sound crop rotation programs which will eliminate the need for broad spectrum fumigants including methyl bromide. This production system utilizes pasture as a natural mulch eliminating the disposal problems associated with the use of plastic mulch. Minimum tillage practices reduce soil erosion, increase soil tilth and conserve organic matter.
Produce tomatoes in a bahaia grass pasture which serves as a living mulch and creates an environment hostile to tomato root nematodes.
Large (3-4 acre) plots were established for the conventional and alternative production systems. The plots were located adjacent to each other. The same tomato cultivar was grown in both plots permitting comparison of marketable yield and fruit quality. Large separate plots allowed for an accurate assessment of labor inputs, material inputs, and packout data.
The bahia grass plots were rotovated and ripped and then fertilizer was rotovated into the soil. Poast was applied on the edges of the cleared strips to keep the bahia at bay during the season. In addition to cultivation and fertilization the conventional plots required laser leveling, deep plowing, fumigation with methyl bromide and mulching with plastic before planting. Inputs on the conventional plots often total $1,000 per acre.
After harvest cleanup included burning the nylon string, pulling up the stakes and mowing the vines before turning the cows back into the bahia pasture. But it was no extra work because these things need to be done anyway.
Reports on the incidence of foliar pests were obtained bi-weekly by a private scouting firm. These reports were used to decide if and when pesticide applications would be made. The cooperators scouted for foliar and soilborne pests at various intervals throughout the crop and for root-galling and nematode populations at harvest. The cooperators also assisted in the analysis, interpretation, and presentation of data obtained in this project.
Thrips caused a twenty percent loss due to tomato spotted wilt virus in the bahia pasture strip-tilled plots compared to a ten percent loss in the conventional plot. Consequently, yield from the bahia grass plot was 1270 boxes/acre versus 1498 boxes/acre for the conventional plot.
Because the input costs were higher in the conventional plot, the producers made more money on the bahia grass plot. The conventional plot grossed $4,719/acre with inputs of $3,800/acre while the bahia grass plots grossed $4,001/acre with inputs of $2,850/acre.
Net profit from the bahia strip-tilled plot was greater than in the conventional plots due to savings on the chemical and labor inputs. The net profit on the bahia grass plots was $1,151/acre which was $232/acre greater than the net profit of $ 919/acre on the conventional plot.
Project information was shared by hosting a field day for area tomato growers. The cooperators produced an extension fact sheet and presented project results at regional grower meetings and scientific conferences.