Dr. Tom: Part 1

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a three-part series to appear in the Legacy on drought and other challenges farmers face that can be mitigated through a nutrition-based management approach. Dr. Thomas T. Yamashita (“Dr. Tom”) has a Ph.D. in plant pathology and over 30 years of research and experience on the topic.

Drought and Plant Nutrition:  less acres = less water, but more yield

If you were to ask a farmer what are the biggest challenges facing his business today you would get many answers. But California farmers would have several similar issues such as water regulations, the high price of land, varied production yields, pests, and other regulatory obstacles among their top concerns. Everyone living in California is keenly aware of the drought plaguing the West of late. Precipitation has averaged less than half of normal over most of California and many counties in the Central Valley have seen as little as 30 percent of normal – farmers are feeling it deeply.

At a recent water rally at the state Capitol, conservative estimates were reported that well over 500,000 acres of farmland will go out of production this year, resulting in thousands of unemployed workers in agriculture and its supporting industries. Additionally, as a result of the drought and water restrictions on farmers, experts believe we could see retail food prices jump 3.5 percent. With California supplying over 70 percent of the food and fiber, fruits and nuts to other states, it becomes clear how impacts to farmland here will have ripple effects across the country.

For decades the issue of water sustainability has been persistent and of concern to residents and farmers alike as our population explodes and the demands on less and less farmland to produce more and more food steadily increases.

Water and Wells

However, a drought today is not the only factor creating the current water shortage. In the 1950s we entered the arena of using wells versus just canal and ditch water. Wells were a smart backup and could mitigate frost events and other issues. At this time everyone was digging wells at 80-150 feet and now there are some who are going as deep as 2,700 feet. In this same era wells in the Modesto area and surrounding lands had the highest quality water in the United States – not so the case anymore.

Slowly but surely ground water has been depleted. “There are areas near Modesto where power poles show clearly how the valley floor dropped 2.5 feet by the 1960s and ground water was already depleted by 30 percent,” said Dr. Tom. “Today, ground water depletion on the valley floor is compounded by the lack of reservoir capacity in the foothills and the coast ranges. These reservoirs are servicing 17 valley counties with some below 50 percent capacity and others below 25 percent.”

These counties are in danger of a serious water shortage. “Without strategic planning and the willingness of farmers, elected officials, and consumers to broaden their scope of solutions for this water shortage, we could soon see water being trucked from far distances at a premium price,” said Dr. Tom.

Water conservation efforts are important, as well as strategies for ground water recharge and replenishing our natural aquifers. Other more dramatic efforts could bring water from the Pacific Northwest, where there is a surplus, piped down to California, where there is the greatest need. “This need is important to meet considering we continue to demand more production from less farmland to feed more people,” said Dr. Tom.

There is also the concern over protecting the prime soils of the Central Valley that supply the abundance of healthy foods that we are now accustomed to having. “But in addition to water saving and replenishing strategies, we must look at how we can increase production yield and quality of crops on fewer acres of farmland because these fewer acres will also require less water,” said Dr. Tom.

Feeding the Soil to Produce More with Less

All plants, like humans, have nutrient and mineral requirements. When they do not get enough of what they need they, like us, become susceptible to pathogens and environmental or abiotic stress. When our immune system is suppressed by stress – such as staying out too late, then traveling the next day, coupled with not eating right and not sleeping enough – then two days later, boom, we have a flu or a cold. Plants are no different. When they are stressed their immune response is impaired.

“If we focus on a nutrition and counter punching to stress events as opposed to a silver bullet approach to combating things like plant diseases, nematodes and pathogens, we can not only benefit the environment but increase crop yield,” said Dr. Tom. “Conventional methods to treat pathogens and other issues seek to kill the problem, but there is a way to use microbiology in the soil to reach the same results, not by killing, but by fortifying the plant’s own health to fight off disease or infestation on its own.”

“It’s a natural method but the strategy is to increase the activity of the natural process to the point where desired results are achieved,” said Dr. Tom. “By amending the soil to feed the plant, we can lower crop rotations and get soil characteristics back closer to their virginal state. Today, it’s no longer a theory and producers are reaping the rewards.”

Dr. Tom has developed what he has coined a “biological continuum,” This is a soil amendment program, based on extensive soil analysis, which perpetuates in the soil, sustaining an “ecological continuum” on the surface through plant life and translates into a “farmland continuum” to serve the needs of the people.

“This service to farmers where we focus on analyzing and then feeding the soil ensures the plant produces what the farmer needs in terms of yield and quality,” said Dr. Tom. “This will also allow him to produce significantly more per plant and therefore require less plants and land to meet his needs. This form of farming allows the farmer to be proactive rather than reactive to typical burdens of the business – Mother Nature, pests, water shortages, and even regulations.”

Read more about the concepts behind proactive farming and nutrition-based management of farmland as a beneficial tool for farmers and consumers in our next issue of the Legacy.