Processing Tomatoes Are The Number One Crop For Top 100 Grower Terranova Ranch

tomato harvester Terranova Ranch

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Don Cameron is one busy man. Crop maps cover the huge desk in his office in Helm, CA, about 30 miles southwest of Fresno. After all, it isn’t easy keeping track of all the crops — 28 at last count — farmed at Terranova Ranch, where Cameron serves as vice president and general manager.

On the Top 100 list in the West, Terranova Ranch has 5,500 acres, though Cameron custom-farms another 1,500 acres. He farms a total of 3,500 acres of vegetables, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, Terranova Ranch’s history reflects California’s tremendous growth in fruit and vegetable production over the past several decades.

Cameron has a crop map of the ranch drawn in 1982, one year after he became general manager, and there were 2,200 acres of cotton, with the rest of the acreage devoted to wheat, barley, and alfalfa. That year, under Cameron’s leadership, 300 acres of winegrapes were planted. That turned out to be a prescient move, judging by the fact the farm now has 1,200 acres of winegrapes.

Besides winegrapes, tree nuts have been a huge success story in California, and Terranova has been part of that, too. The ranch now has 600 acres of almonds and 400 acres of pistachios.

Tomatoes Are #1

But the top crop by far is tomatoes for processing, with 2,000 acres, which is really something when you consider the advice Cameron received when he took over. “Years ago I was told we couldn’t grow tomatoes,� he says. “I was told the ground was too light.�

But in 1991, he decided to give it a try, and went ahead with planting 150 acres of tomatoes. “Since then we’ve proven we can grow tomatoes,� says a smiling Cameron, who is now a director on the board of the California Tomato Growers Association and once served as chairman.

In an effort to conserve water and increase yields, six years ago Cameron switched a small amount of the tomato acreage to drip irrigation. The move paid immediate dividends. Yields jumped from 40 to 45 tons per acre to an eye-opening 65 tons per acre. Needless to say, the next year they converted all of the tomato acreage to drip.

Not only did the yields increase, they cut the amount of water used by 20%, from 3 acre-feet to 2.4%. But Cameron says what he finds most pleasing as a grower is the near-perfect uniformity they have achieved through the use of fertigation, now that they have been able to fine-tune water, fertilizer, and fungicide levels. And still the yields have remained high, with an average across the 2,000 acres an impresssive 63 tons per acre last year.

Tough Year

As careful as they are, though, they weren’t immune from the beet curly top virus that ravaged the southern San Joaquin Valley this year. “With curly top this year,� says Cameron, “if we average 55 tons we’ll be happy.�

Cameron still didn’t have a handle on his final numbers by mid-September when it came to tomato yields this year. The tomatoes were late because the plants shut down when temperatures get up near the triple digits, a too-common occurrence this past summer in the San Joaquin Valley. “We’re typically done by the end of August, but this year we’ll go to the end of September,� he says, gesturing at a tomato harvester. “We’re still doing 20 to 30 (truck)loads a day.�

Customer-Centric

Of the 3,500 acres of vegetables Cameron farms, 600 are organic, including tomatoes, onions, peppers, and lettuce and broccoli seed, and a new one this year, popcorn. Not that it was Cameron’s idea, it’s just that the customer is always right. “A guy called and said ‘Do you want to grow organic popcorn?’ and I thought we’d give it a try,� he says with a shrug.

Whether conventional or organic, Cameron doesn’t believe in leaving ground fallow. With the climate in which he farms, he believes in putting the land to work. For example, they will plant winter carrots in July and August and harvest in December or January. “By March we’ll have tomatoes going into that ground,� he says. “Then we harvest those in mid-July and turn it right after the tomatoes, planting another crop such as corn silage or another short-season crop.�

Gone To Seed

Cameron also contracts with seed companies, producing seed for numerous vegetable crops, including broccoli and lettuce seed. The west side of the San Joaquin Valley is a great place to grow seed because of the climate. In fact, he custom grows 9,000 varieties of lettuce seed for a seed company. “It looks like a quilt out there,� he says.

Cameron also grows seed for a number of more obscure vegetable crops such as red and white kale, bok choy, and Mizuna, used as a Japanese salad ingredient. Besides the great climate, Cameron grows a lot of vegetable seed because many other growers aren’t willing. “A lot of people don’t want to mess with it,� he says, “because it takes more time.�