SJV vegetable nursery growing with continued acreage gains

Vegetable production continues to grow in the San Joaquin Valley and with it comes the infrastructure to support it.

Greenhouses are popping up throughout the Central Valley with the increasing acreage as well as the increasing use of transplants rather than seeds to get a crop off quicker and to avoid early season problems like weeds and seedling diseases.

One of the newest in the valley is Plantel Central Valley Nursery LLC in Huron, which started with three greenhouses three years ago. It now has six and plans to expand its operations to 15 acres of transplant production in the next few years, according to Edwin Fichtner, the nursery manager.

The company services two dozen growers in the Central Valley as well as the deserts in California and in Yuma, Ariz., Fichtner said.

The nursery provides tomato transplants for the West Side's big tomato production. It also grows cauliflower, broccoli, red onion, bell pepper, and seedless watermelon plants as well as strawberries and herbs for the consumer market. Oregano, basil, and fennel are a few of the 15 different herbs the nursery grows.

The three-year old nursery's parent company is Plantel Nursery, Inc., Santa Maria, Calif.

Plantel opened the satellite nursery in Huron to be closer to its Central Valley growers, Fichtner said. That was made more feasible with the recent introduction of more heat resistant vegetable varieties, Fichtner noted.

The Huron is out of the valley's fog belt and gets more heat and light units than other valley areas, Fichtner said.

Plantel's Central Valley location offers its customers a twofold advantage. One is that it takes less time and less fuel costs to deliver transplants to valley growers than it does from the coast.

Secondly, the plants are grown inland and that means they can better simulate the actual field growing conditions where the plants will eventually be transplanted.

Protecting plants in a greenhouse is important. Exposing them to outside elements as much as possible is also important to their health, said Will Taylor, Plantel's greenhouse grower.

Avoids plant shock

“If you grow plants in a greenhouse with the optimum temperature and humidity and you put them into a field without acclimating them, you'll shock them” Taylor said.

Plantel's Huron facility has retractable walls, roofs and shades. These can be opened and closed depending on weather conditions. An Argus Information System measures light, wind speed, wind direction, temperature and humidity and automates the retractable partitions to open and close depending on the weather, Taylor said.

The plants are mechanically seeded, irrigated, fertilized and if needed, sprayed with insecticides with an overhead boom, Taylor said.

“We want uniformity in the greenhouse. We want to know that every single plant has had the same amount of water. We want the plants to have the same exact temperature, the same amount of heat…the same amount of everything,” Taylor said.

“It's important to have uniform plants going to the field to ensure uniform fruiting. If you don't have that uniformity, picking crews will have to make multiple passes through the field, picking only a portion of the crop at one time. That's an added expense,” Fichtner said.

“It's important to have uniform plants going to the field to ensure uniform fruiting.

Plantel also uses a system in the greenhouse to keep the plants uniformly warm and dry. Once the plants are a few inches in height, they are brushed with overhead brushes after each irrigation. Keeping the leaves dry helps reduce the risk of disease, Fichtner said.

Plantel uses infrared heaters for warmth, heating the soil and plants directly instead of the air. This saves energy and ensures a more even flow of temperature than forced air heating, Fichtner said.

“No human hands touch the trays until the plants are actually transplanted in the fields,” Taylor said. This keeps plants healthy, he said, because there's less chance of a worker spreading disease from one infected plant to other areas of the nursery.

Diversification in a nursery operation is just as important as it is on the farm. In addition to its vegetable and other transplants for farmers, this year Plantel at Huron is also growing strawberries and herbs to sell directly to wholesale, restaurant and retail buyers. While many nurseries grow hot house tomatoes, there are few who produce greenhouse strawberries, Fichtner said.

Plantel has three acres of strawberries planted in 1,200 square feet of space. Plants are grown four plants per pot in vertical columns eight pots high.

Plantel strawberries were available this year in late January. Next year, Plantel is hoping to hit the November and December markets when there are few California strawberries on the market.

“There is fruit coming out of Mexico and Florida at this time, but it doesn't ship well,” Taylor said.

In general, West Coast buyers prefer California strawberries when they can get them, Taylor said.

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