Commissioner's Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award
Pacific Tomato Growers, Ltd.
Autumn in North Florida is the traditional beginning to Pacific Tomato Growers Ltd.’s tomato harvest. It’s the start of a year-round cycle that sees the company harvesting crops throughout the country -- beginning in Quincy and later moving to Palmetto, Ruskin, Fort Myers, and then on to Maryland, Virginia and California.
While it produces a variety of fruits and vegetables such as watermelon, peppers, squash and citrus, Pacific Tomato Growers is best known for its fresh-market tomato production. With 15,000 acres in production across the country, Pacific Tomato’s growing, packing and shipping operation provides a continuous and steady supply of tomatoes year-round.
"Certainly these days there’s much more emphasis on marketing and branding," said Mac Carraway, chief financial officer. "However, that will only take you as far as the quality of the product that you put in the box. So we’ve always had an emphasis on quality, appearance and taste for our customers. That drives everything."
To maintain this consistent flow of quality product from its nationwide operations, Pacific Tomato Growers takes a "whole farm" management approach. While it recognizes the need for Best Management Practices, or BMPs, on all its farms, the company knows that a "one size fits all" plan will not work for each operation. In Florida alone -- from the rolling hills of the Panhandle to the flatwoods of south-central Florida -- Pacific Tomato’s operations span four of the state’s five water management districts.
Since each operation faces different needs, concerns and governmental regulations, Pacific Tomato is working with regional water managers to establish site-specific BMPs, taking into consideration each location’s natural features, such as soils, topography and vegetation.
"We feel that creating a constructive dialogue with the staff and managers at the Southwest Florida Water Management District has enabled us both to benefit and do a better job," Carraway said. "We’re both looking -- perhaps in a different way -- for the same objective of the long-term maintenance of the resource. We need that in order to be an ongoing economically viable farm and farm product company. And it’s necessary from the standpoint of the district to make sure that the environment is protected for future generations of Floridians."
At the headwater of the Myakka River sits the Flatford Swamp. A large natural basin near a number of Manatee County farms, the swamp was beginning to show signs of stress. Due to an excess of water flowing into the swamp, trees were dying off at an alarming rate. The Southwest Florida Water Management District became concerned: if the Flatford Swamp is damaged, the delicate estuaries of Charlotte Harbor, at the other end of the Myakka River, could be affected. The water management district began examining ways of reducing water flow into Flatford Swamp. Understanding the need to maintain the health of the water body, Pacific Tomato Growers was the first to partner with the district.
"Anytime you have a private/public partnership that works together to solve a problem or issue, the public always benefits," said Ron Cohen, irrigation engineer with the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "The partnership that we have is the Agricultural Conservation Partnership Program, where Pacific Tomato Growers is working with three different best management practices to develop a toolbox for their site-specific conditions to utilize to protect the resources."
The program involves experimenting with the BMPs on three production scale plots of 30 to 50 acres each, with the goal of conserving water and preventing runoff at Pacific Tomato’s Myakka City farm.
The first, known as the Tailwater Recovery Seepage Interception System, uses perforated pipe to line the downhill end of the field, thus preventing seepage of groundwater past a set boundary. The water is then pumped to the field and reused. Another utilizes a fully enclosed subsurface seepage irrigation system in which heavy-duty drip tubing is completely buried. This conserves water by minimizing evaporation. The third field is irrigated by a conventional drip method using disposable tubing, which applies directly to the root zone. This project allows for the first time a side-by-side comparison of these BMPs in a production setting.
While these BMPs will help reduce tailwater runoff entering the Flatford, there is still a concern about the excessive amount of water there. In another innovative public/private partnership -- the Surface Water Exchange Project -- Pacific Tomato Growers is working with the water management district to remove excess surface water from the Flatford. By placing a withdrawal point within the swamp, Pacific Tomato can remove enough water to irrigate 500 acres of row crops. This will not only reduce substantially the amount of permitted ground water withdrawals, it will also relieve pressure on the stressed Flatford.
"We are responsible for taking care of these assets because they represent our living," Carraway said. "We have to have water. It makes no sense for us to waste water. We have to have soil conservation. It’s absolutely a necessity for us to have healthy sustainable crop land. My view is optimistic about agriculture and the care that it takes of its soil and water resources. I think it’s critical that Florida nourish its agricultural environment, and I think that Pacific Tomato Growers is going to be there in 25 years emphasizing quality and stewardship as part of our basic philosophy." -- 2000
- 2000 Agricultural Environmental Leadership Awards Booklet (PDF)
- Agricultural Environmental Leadership Award Nomination (PDF)