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Conservation Tillage Cuts Costs in Tomato Production

The Issue

Rising fuel and labor costs oblige growers to carefully cut production costs. Reducing intercrop tillage typically associated with bed preparation operations is a promising means to cut costs in tomato production systems. A variety of “conservation tillage” (CT) crop production systems have been developed in other regions for crops such as corn, wheat, soybean, and cotton. To what extent, though, might CT principles and practices be adapted to tomato production in California?

What Has ANR Done?

Since 1999, UC researchers have been evaluating CT practices for tomato production in Five Points, Calif. This work compares standard till (ST) and CT systems in terms of economics, profitability, soil properties, and dust emissions through a tomato-cotton rotation. The CT system reduced the total number of passes over the field by an average of nine per year, eliminating disking, chiseling, landplaning, and listing and shaping beds. CT system yields were comparable to those achieved by the ST approach, increasing profitability with CT because costs decreased and revenue remained unchanged.

The Payoff

Growing tomatoes with less tillage

Although conservation tillage reduced the number of tillage passes by 50 percent, the total cultural cost of tomato production was reduced by only about 10 percent: 41 percent for harvest, 14 percent for seed, only 20 percent for preplant tillage operations. The value of the savings from reducing labor and fuel prices will increase as labor rates and fuel costs per gallon increase. [Example: CT reduced fuel use by 16 gallons per acre. At a price of $1 per gallon, the savings is $16; at a price of $3 per gallon, the savings is $39.] Reducing the number of ground preparation operations by adopting CT always will reduce resource use and cut costs; however, overall profit may not improve if CT leads to a decrease in income due to a crop yield reduction that is greater than cost savings. Even if yields are lower under CT, profit can increase if the reduction in costs is greater than the income loss due to yield reduction. Other environmental or ecosystem services result from reducing tillage. Dust generation in the CT systems was reduced by more than 60 percent and greenhouse gas emissions were lower, particularly when coupled with the use of cover crops. Elements of these systems are now being adapted and pursued by some processing and fresh-market tomato growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.


Jeff Mitchell, Cooperative Extension Specialist,
UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, mitchell@uckac.edu
Karen Klonsky, Cooperative Extension Specialist,
UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Klonsky@primal.ucdavis.edu
Gene Miyao, Farm Advisor, Yolo, Solano and Sacramento Counties, emmiyao@ucdavis.edu