Kuzzens riding conservation practices into 10-year revival

Managing Editor

EXMORE, Va. (Feb. 21, 2017) — Conservation plans have been in place at Kuzzens Inc., a large tomato growing and packing operation on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, for at least the last 25 years.
But in the last 10 years, efforts to manage erosion and nutrient runoff have tripled.
“It’s a night-and-day difference on what we were doing to now,” said Aarin Nottingham, assistant farm manager who starts his 21st year at the farm next month.
The ramp up in conservation work has involved a mix of using new technology to be more efficient, a stronger focus on crop management and construction of best management practices in and around fields, said Richard Davis, Kuzzens farm manager since 2006.
On 24 different parcels, Kuzzens, a subsidiary of Florida-based Lipman Family Farms, farms in Accomack and Northampton counties, more than 40 sediment retention structures have been installed along with 10 check dams, more than 20 grassed waterways and 65-foot buffer strips along all active cropland totaling about 230 acres.
“We mow an awful lot of grass, but that’s part of it?, Davis said.
When Davis came to the shore, the operation was growing tomatoes on 2,100 acres but soon cut down to about 1,700 acres.
“That was nothing more than me and Aarin marking out wet spots and leaving them out instead of farming right through them,” Davis said. “It just evolved from there, being more aware of where we’re farming and who we’re farming around.”
Davis said farming less acres allowed them to manage the crop better and since the places that were left out were tough to grow in to begin with, production either “stayed the same or has gotten better.”
Another help to the bottom line in cutting out poorer areas was the savings on inputs.
“If we stretch the plastic across something, at that point we have spent 25 percent of our input cost,” Davis said.
Incorporating precision agriculture has allowed the farm to do more on the conservation side as well.
Guidance systems in their tractors have hastened planting rye strips between tomato beds for wind protection.
Without it, Nottingham said they could plant strips on 30 acres a day. Now they can cover a minimum of 80 acres a day with half the labor.
“That is one thing that is so critical on the Delmarva, you better be able to move in a timely manner, David added. “Do not create a rut on this soil because you will live with that rut for at least a year if not more.”
Working faster there has allowed earlier cover crop seeding which also has been widely expanded at Kuzzens. Davis said for the past three years, all of Kuzzens’ farmed acres have been cover cropped.
“Before, it was if we get to it we get to it,” Nottingham said. “Now it’s more a priority to get it done in timely manner.”
Improved irrigation technology and practices play a large role in conservation as well, the managers said. Trading out lay-flat hose that had been the norm in plasticulture production for buried pipe throughout much of the farm’s tomato ground has helped Kuzzens reduce water use by 25 percent, Davis said.
“Our farm is so much drier now,” he said. “Standing water is not a friend to the tomato.”
Davis added for the last four years, they’ve irrigated based on evapotranspiration levels which also contributed to water savings.
“Basically, we try to start with a good moisture level in the bed and then try to maintain that,” he said. “We’re replacing yesterday’s water loss with today’s irrigation.”
Davis said Kuzzens is now in the midst of adjusting its fields to rotate crops within an individual parcel rather than from field to field, noting the best-yielding tomatoes last year came off of new rotation system.
Helped by a decrease in use of soil fumigants, he and Nottingham said they hope to improve soil health faster and allow for more frequent conservation work in the new system.
“It has me excited with the crop rotation,” Davis said. “We’ve all heard it but until you live it on a local level, you don’t see it.”
All the conservation effort has not gone unnoticed. With a nomination from the Eastern Shore Soil and Water Conservation, Kuzzens was awarded the 2016 Virginia Clean Water Farm Award for the Coastal Basin.
It one of ten farms statewide in the awards program, sponsored by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Davis said the recognition was was great for what they have done but conservation efforts will continue to increase.
“It is a great honor. I know where we were, I know where we are, I know where I would like to be,” Davis said. “We have made tremendous improvement and strides, but there is a tremendous amount more that we can do.”