Title: 2000 Ag-Environmental: Pacific Tomato Growers, Ltd.
Type: Agricultural-Environmental Leadership Award
Autumn in North Florida ... 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 through several locations beginning in Quincy, and later moving to Palmetto, Ruskin, Fort Myers, and Immokalee, then on to Maryland, Virginia, and California.
While its does produce a variety of fruits and vegetables, like watermelon, pepper, squash and citrus, Pacific is best known for its fresh-market tomato production. With 15,000 acres in production across the country, Pacific’s growing, packing and shipping operation provides a continuous and steady supply of tomatoes year-round.
Mac Carraway, CFO: Certainly these days there’s much more emphasis on marketing, branding. However, that will only take you as far as the quality of the product that you put in the box. Our customers expect from Pacific a pack out produce that looks like what it’s supposed to look like, like what we’ve told them it's going to look like. So we’ve always had an emphasis on quality and appearance and taste for our customers. And that drives everything.
To maintain this consistent flow of quality product from its nationwide operations, Pacific takes a “whole farm” management approach. While it recognizes the need for Best Management Practices -- or BMPs B 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’s operations span four out of the five Regional Water Management Districts.
Since each operation faces different needs, concerns, and governmental regulations, Pacific is working with regional water managers to establish site-specific BMPs, taking into consideration each location's natural features, such as soils, topography, vegetation and wildlife.
Mac Carraway: We feel that creating a constructive dialogue with the staff and managers at the Southwest Florida Water Management District, for example, have enabled us both to benefit, to enable us both to do a better job. Because we're both looking perhaps in a different way but really for the same objective for the long-term maintenance of the resource. We need that in order to be an ongoing economically viable 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 swamp, Pacific was the first to partner with the district.
Ron Cohen, SWFWMD: Well, anytime you have a private/public partnership that works together to solve a problem, an issue, the public always benefits. The partnership that we have is the Agricultural Conservation Partnership Program where Pacific Tomato Growers are 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 three BMPs on production scale plots of 30 to 50 acres to conserve water and prevent runoff at Pacific'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, whereby heavy duty drip tubing is completely buried. This conserves water by minimizing evaporation, but still employs water table management techniques familiar to most growers in Florida.
The third field is irrigated by a conventional drip method, using disposable drip tubing which applies water directly to the root zone.
This project allows, for the first time, a side-by-side comparison of these three BMPs in a production setting.
While these BMPs will help reduce tailwater from 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 is working with the water management district to remove excess surface water from the Flatford.
By placing a withdrawal point within the swamp, Pacific 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 would also relieve pressure on the stressed Flatford Swamp.
Mac Carraway: We are responsible for taking care of these assets because they represent our living. 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 and so 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.