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Red Gold farmers win award for conservation practices

By Michele F. Mihaljevich
Indiana Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS – Adam Myers constructed an irrigation pond and uses drip tape to water his tomatoes and other crops on his sod farm in southern Indiana. The Rice family has planted cover crops on its LaPorte County farm for 30 years.
For their conservation efforts, the farms have been named winners of the Red Gold Stewardship award, presented by the Elwood, Ind.-based tomato processor and the Indiana State Department of Agriculture (ISDA). In its 12th year, the program recognizes Red Gold growers who value improving soil health and water quality on their operations, ISDA said.
“At the time the program started, there was a lot of focus on sustainability efforts,” said Steve Smith, Red Gold’s senior director of agriculture. “Everyone was wondering, what are you doing? We wanted to highlight that we were ‘country before country was cool’. We were already doing that before it was cool. Our farmers were doing these practices on their farms, not just on their tomato acreage.”
The program encourages Red Gold’s growers to do even more, he noted. “Sustainability has been going on for a long time. No one is more interested in sustainability than farmers. They’re interested in passing on their farms in better shape than when they got them. The program is tied in with education and emphasizing and highlighting to people the good work agriculture has been doing.”
Myers Sod Farm was the top winner and received a $1,000 scholarship and the option to ship an extra truckload of tomatoes per day during harvest. As runner up, Rice Farms received a $500 scholarship and the option to ship an extra half truckload of tomatoes per day during harvest.
Myers, of Seymour, began growing tomatoes for Red Gold in 2009; he started his sod farm in 2003. He has 105 acres of tomatoes and 600 acres of sod. Myers farms 3,500 acres and grows corn, soybeans and wheat on the remaining acreage.
He created the irrigation pond on his sod operation in Scott County because the farm doesn’t have good access to water and drilling a well wasn’t a good option. The pond allows him to better recycle nutrients and water.
“If you take care of the ground, it will take care of you,” he said. “I want to farm this ground for a long time. It’s such a precious thing and I want to take care of it.”
This growing season, Myers has used drip tape – similar to a drip hose homeowners might use in their gardens – for irrigation on 30 acres of tomatoes.
“We can feed nutrients through it,” he pointed out. “We tissue test by taking leaves off the plants and we send them to a lab. We can add nitrogen or calcium or whatever the plants need. We aren’t over applying nutrients this way.”
Myers said he underestimated the amount of labor involved in installing the drip tape and then removing it before tomato harvest. He hasn’t decided if the work involved outweighs the benefits.
He also utilizes cover crops and filter strips.
Rice Farms has grown tomatoes for Red Gold since 1987. Scott Rice, a third-generation farmer, and his son James run the operation. In addition to tomatoes, they raise seed corn, soybeans and wheat.
The Rice family uses several conservation practices on their farm, including grass filter strips, constructed wetlands and riparian herbaceous covers.
In the past few years, they’ve used cover crops differently on the farm, Scott Rice said. “We’ve done cover crops after tomatoes for probably 30 years. We have very sandy soils and we planted winter wheat after tomatoes to keep the ground from blowing away. More recently, we started using cereal rye in the fall after harvesting seed corn where we’ll put the tomatoes the next year. We kill the cereal rye in the spring. It helps keep the soil in place. The bottom line is we believe it helps with yield. It helps with sand blasting, which means tomatoes on sand in high winds can get injured. It also helps with weed control and helps hold nutrients in place.”
The Rice family grows 261 acres of tomatoes for Red Gold and farms a total of 3,000 acres. “We want to do the right thing,” Rice explained. “We’re doing a lot of good things. This gives us an opportunity to say ‘here’s what those things are’.”
The program’s application process was designed by ISDA, which scores the applicants and then visits and interviews the top five, Smith said.
“There are a lot of points given for cover crops, riparian setbacks next to creeks and drainage ditches,” he stated. “There are a lot of points for making sure they have dikes around storage areas. It’s not just about tomatoes, but a total farm picture.”
Red Gold’s growers in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio have 10,000 acres of tomatoes but 80,000 acres of cover crops, Smith said. The company has 42 growers in the three states.