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Vegetable farmer Tanimura treads lightly on the soil

Issue Date: March 18, 2009
Kate Campbell

Walk muddy farm fields in Salinas with Gary Tanimura and check his rubber boots. Chances are they'll be nearly mud-free. When asked how he treads so lightly, he'll smile before answering: "Lots of practice."

Tanimura has been farming in the Salinas Valley with his family since he was a boy. After he graduated from San Jose State University in the early 1970s, he worked in the family farming business, Higashi and Tanimura. In the 1980s, he joined his uncle, George Tanimura, and Bud Antle after they formed the farming and sales company Tanimura & Antle Inc.

Salinas grower Gary Tanimura is a proponent of organic farming, but cautions that it takes real commitment to be successful.

Today, the company is the nation's third-largest producer of fresh vegetables based on acreage in production, including vegetables from an increasing number of certified organic fields in California and Arizona. In the 1990s, the company took a one-third interest in San Juan Bautista-based Natural Selection Foods, which owns Earthbound Farms, the nation's largest organic produce supplier.

"As our company progressed during the 1980s in the salad business, we noticed that sales for baby vegetables, especially lettuce and spinach, were taking off and the trend has continued," Tanimura said, adding that the firm has steadily increased its plantings since the 1990s.

"Baby crops are pretty easy to grow and can be harvested within about 25 to 28 days," he said. "But we also found we had pretty good, natural bug control in the Salinas Valley, especially in early spring and late fall. We really weren't spraying much in the way of pesticides, so the crops were nearly organic anyway."

About that time, in the early 1990s, he recalled, "We were approached by Earthbound Farm and Mission Organics to consider being a third member in their operation. We realized it was an opportunity to diversify and extend what we were already doing—producing baby salad greens and naked lettuce nearly pesticide-free."

Since then, Tanimura said, he has "learned quite a few things." For example: "To grow organics you have to be smart about it. Grow at the right times to help ensure success, maintain quality because that's what consumers want and keep a close eye on the markets."

Innovations in organic horticultural techniques are prompting more commercial-scale organic production and the farming system is being adapted to a wide range of larger farms, according to a 2004 report from the National Center for Appropriate Technology.

Earthbound Farm, which started 25 years ago as a backyard garden in the Carmel Valley, now has more than 150 farmers growing for its customers. The company said these farmers use a variety of production techniques, including balanced soil enrichment strategies, cover crops, creation of beneficial habitats and crop rotation to ensure soil fertility, as well as innovative weed control and pest management strategies.

At T&A, Tanimura said, organic vegetable growing represents about 5 percent of the company's production—about 2,000 acres with another 1,500 acres currently in transition to organic. T&A grows "around the horn" as Tanimura puts it, from Salinas to Huron to the Imperial Valley and Yuma and back around again, following the growing seasons.

Although T&A has been an early leader in applying organic techniques to a portion of its nearly 45,000-acre vegetable operation, Tanimura is matter-of-fact about the development. He sees increased organic crop production as a logical step.

"You've got to get honest with yourself," Tanimura said. "It's harder to grow organic crops on a commercial scale. You've got to be realistic about your commitment and capabilities. And more than anything, you've got to know your ranches and how well organic or conventional crops will work in your own environment."

When it comes to growing organic crops, Tanimura said, "You've got to be in tune with your growing environment and take advantage of natural opportunities. As I said, a lot of what we're doing here is nearly organic anyway."

He added, "The thing about organics is this: If everything goes like it should, you can get by without bug spray and still make a good crop. But sometimes Mother Nature throws us a curveball with the bug pressure. Once you reach a certain pest threshold, Mother Nature always wins."

He said it costs about 20 percent more to produce an organic crop, even with some expenses, like pesticides, removed. Hand weeding is labor intensive and record keeping requires considerably more time than with a conventional crop.

Tanimura said that he has been overseeing production of conventionally grown strawberries in Salinas. At the same time, he's transitioning some acres to organic production and studying the ecosystem for production risks.

"Last year, even though we grew strawberries conventionally, we hoped to get by without treating for two-spotted mites," Tanimura explained. "I wondered if we could do it and then found we were successful because we had such good control with natural predators.

"That made us more comfortable about growing organic strawberries this year," he said. "But there's still risk with organic crops. With conventional, we retain the option to treat. It's expensive and we don't want to, but it's still an option."

Rio Farms General Manager Bob Martin, a former Monterey County Farm Bureau president who also grows some crops organically, said Tanimura is known for farming innovation and support of agricultural research and education. Martin recalled that the county Farm Bureau board changed its regular meeting date in order to be sure that Tanimura could attend.

"Without Gary at the table, it was a loss for us," Martin said. "We need his knowledge."

Much of that knowledge, Tanimura said, comes through trial and error.

"My Uncle George, who's 93 years old, points out that organic was the only way to farm in the 1930s. There weren't any pesticides back then and more than a few crop failures. Of course, we've learned a lot about organic growing since those days, but my uncle has a point," Tanimura said.

"At the end of the day, growing organically plays into a lot of themes that are important to me," he said. "Whenever possible, I try to take the softer approach."

Some practical tips for organic farming

With hundreds of organic acres under cultivation, Gary Tanimura, executive vice president for growing operations for Tanimura & Antle Inc., offers some practical advice for farmers interested in adding organic production to their production systems:

  • Know your ranches and the natural environment where they're located in terms of soil quality, pests, native habitat, wildlife and water needs.
  • Find a niche crop and study the markets to find the right crops and increase the likelihood of success.
  • Be realistic about your capabilities and commitment. It's harder to grow organically on a commercial scale than to grow conventionally.
  • Decide on the right marketing approach—farmers markets, community supported agriculture, distributing through regional or national shippers.
  • Be prepared for trial and error and recognize that with organically grown crops, the risk of loss is greater.
  • Keep looking at research to find new approaches and farming techniques for organic production.
  • Spend time on the Internet. It's a great resource.
  • Get involved with organic farming groups, attend conferences and build networks.
  • Just like any kind of farming, organic vegetable production is a "down-to-the-penny" business. Success involves a lot of paperwork and financial planning.
  • Be ready to spend a lot more time on inspections, your own and those of certifying organizations.
  • Recognize that regardless of the method—organic or conventional—there can be no compromise on food safety.
  • Even before you harvest your first organic crop, know what new and innovative crops you're going to introduce in the future.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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