Mar 27, 2024
Tech aids Salinas Valley grower Pezzini Berry Farms

Pezzini Berry Farms is using technology to combat pests and is considering other tech to improve harvesting efficiencies.

Paul Pezzini, a farm market veteran who grew up in his family’s artichoke farming and retail business, successfully transitioned to growing strawberries in California’s Salinas Valley.

Immigrating from Italy in 1929, the Pezzini family began farming artichokes in the Carmel Valley with rootstock artichoke plants. They moved to Castroville, California, in 1944, where they purchased land to grow artichokes. The family opened a farm stand in 1958 and in 1982 opened a second in Moss Landing, California.

Paul Pezzini of Pezzini Berry Farms. Pezzini grows strawberries in California’s Salinas Valley. Photos by Doug Ohlemeier.

Pezzini was raised on the family farm and was involved in all aspects of operations, including field work, harvesting, packing and working in retail. After college, he worked in the software industry, but returned to help with the family business after his mother died and his
dad underwent heart bypass surgery.

Pezzini expanded the wholesale business and opened a farm market and specialty foods store. In 1999, Pezzini decided to grow strawberries. With rising wages and a dwindling workforce, more growers like Pezzini are being forced to consider automating, with efficiencies that include harvesting equipment. Much research is being conducted at the college level including Cal Poly and the University of California-Davis as well as in private industry.

Tech solutions

“If we can get our harvesting costs down due to increased mechanization and efficiencies, it would help compensate for higher labor costs,” he said. The same team of workers that were employed when Pezzini began are still at the farm. “This is important because it takes a good team behind you,” he said.

Rising wages and a dwindling workforce are forcing growers like Pezzini Berry Farms to consider automation.

Mechanization is a big interest of Pezzini’s. In September 2023, he attended the FIRA USA ag automation conference in Salinas. While he liked seeing all the show’s new technology, Pezzini said the strawberry industry could borrow from mechanized harvesting technology used by California’s vegetable industry.

“There were a lot of interesting ideas at the robotics conference,” Pezzini said. “Lots of interesting innovation and useful technology, but much of it is more or less toys. The ultimate goal would be robotics. But, we’re still not there yet in many ways.”

For several years, California’s southern strawberry growing regions have adopted harvest-assisting equipment. Berries there are grown on wider beds with a more densely populated crop, and large diesel-powered platforms that can accommodate 18-20 harvesters at a single pass. In the Salinas- Watsonville region, however, nothing has taken a foothold.

Soil care

To promote soil health, pH readings are taken at the start of the season. “Soil health is important, and properly working the ground, combined with inputs, adds organic matter back into the soil and helps keep plants producing for 7-8 months,” Pezzini said. This helps create an ideal soil texture for fumigation, bed shaping and planting transplants.

Pezzini rotates every two to three years with a vegetable cash crop or cover crop.

Well-drained ground combined with varieties that can withstand soilborne diseases including phytophthora and verticillium are important in strawberry production. Fumigating and weeding can help knock them back to give transplants time to become stronger, Pezzini said. Two spotted spider mites, thrips and lygus remain big pest threats, though pressures vary by season. Last year, thrips pressure was high due to overwintering in the tall grasses in the nearby hillsides, which grew well due to a wet winter.

Pezzini deploys beneficial insects, persimilis mites, to control the destructive spider mites. Timing of releases and monitoring fields for populations are critical for successful control. To complement releases as predator populations increase, a soft spray on the predator mites is applied as needed.

Paul Pezzini

Pezzini uses drones to spread beneficial insects, particularly in winter when fields are often too wet to enter. Making passes over the fields, drone cylinders rotate and release predatory mites about 15 to 30 feet above the plants. Pezzini said drones are a good example of using mechanization in the fields to improve efficiencies and control costs. However, the technology comes with strict licensing requirements, requires licensed pilots and clearance from the nearby airport. Drone services are outsourced.

Pezzini has long used drip irrigation. During transplanting, overhead sprinklers are employed. After the first month or two, the pipes are removed to switch to drip irrigation. Pezzini Berry Farms uses 16-inch spacings on his 52-inch beds. Two lines of drip tape per bed keeps soil hydrated but not over-saturated, supplying water and fertilizer when needed.

The color of the plastic mulch over the beds provides some control over plant timing. Lighter colors produce cooler bed temperatures with darker shades producing warmer and earlier crops. Silver mulch with black underneath produces a more neutral effect and the black helps with weed control.

The challenges of growing a new crop every year keeps Pezzini going.

“I enjoy the challenges every year brings and obstacles that come along from weather to managing inputs and dealing with pests and diseases during the season and rewards of producing a strong and healthy crop through market fluctuations all year long, and keeping up with exciting new developments in the strawberry industry,” he said.

Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor

Top photo: Pezzini Berry Farms relies on beneficial insects to control destructive
spider mites.






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