gmhTODAY Fall 2021 October-December 2021 - Page 56

B & T Farms -

Facing the Future

By Jordan Rosenfeld Photos by Tony Scotino

Farming has come a long way , for better and worse , from the 1970s when Edwin Tognetti , founder of B & T Farms in Gilroy , immigrated from Italy to begin his new life and business in California . On the one hand , the farm has begun to automate tasks that used to require hours of back-breaking labor , such as weeding and irrigation , to save on costs . On the other , it is facing new threats to their operations , including climate change-exacerbated drought , costly labor law changes , and new pests that threaten crops .

Gary Tognetti , owner / partner and the third generation of Tognettis to run the business , takes it all in stride , day by day . He has to keep his cool ; his operation is massive , producing bumper crops of peppers and tomatoes — the farm ’ s money makers — as well as corn , Napa cabbage , green beans and cherries .
In fact , if you ’ ve purchased products such as salsa or frozen meals , there ’ s a good chance you ’ ve eaten a Tognettigrown vegetable without knowing it ; most of the 36 million pounds — yes , you read that right — of peppers that they grow , and 86 million pounds of tomatoes — are sold to commercial food producers and supermarket chains .
To keep the 400-acre farm running smoothly , they employ about 30 to 42 full-time employees , depending on the season . Additional seasonal workers , who primarily come to help harvest , provide between 50 and 300 additional hands , depending on the season . Most of these laborers come here on work visas from other countries , and earn money per basket or pound of food they harvest .
“ They are some of the hardest working people ,” Tognetti said .
When asked what it takes to run such an operation in addition to so much labor , Tognetti said , “ Tons of equipment , tons of capital . Labor has gotten crazy now .”
Tognetti remembers spending summers in high school driving tractors and helping plant , and that ’ s the way he still likes doing it . His son has followed suit in the summers . While farm work is often labor intensive , Tognetti has worked out a balanced schedule . He only spends a couple of hours every day on paperwork and phone calls , and the rest of his
day driving around to check on the operations of the farm , the health of the plants , and to touch base with employees .
“ We ’ ve been doing it for so long , I have a foreman for the tractor drivers , and everyone knows what they ’ re supposed to do . We ’ re getting so modern . Back when I first started , everyone had a CB radio . We didn ’ t have cell phones .”
Much of the daily oversight is done by his irrigation manager , Ruben Perez .
Planting begins in March , when they plant about 15 to 20 acres per week , so that crops ripen in stages , making harvesting more manageable . As the weather warms , between July and August , the harvest goes into full effect , with as many hands on deck as possible .
As much as Tognetti likes to offer solid employment to his hired hands , he said , “ We ’ re trying to automate everything now to save us on the labor .” They ’ re trying out automatic tractors that are supposed to drive themselves .
Because much of the produce is picked for distribution , meaning it is likely going to be driven quite a distance , it has to be picked pre-ripened . The tomatoes , for example , are picked green , and will be urged to ripen to their pinkish-red only by the time they reach their final destination . Fruit that ripens too early withers on the vine , an unfortunate side effect of the process .
Though he can ’ t rescue all unused fruit or veggies , Tognetti does sell some of the excess in four fruit and vegetable stands he runs in the area .
Another significant change in the farming process has to do with the drastic shifts in climate . The ongoing drought in California is taking its toll on farmers all over the state . For the moment , most of Tognetti ’ s acreage has enough well water to meet their needs . But , he said , “ We ’ re already having problems on the well across the street because the water has dropped below where they ’ re pumping .” While that ’ s not unusual for their busy watering month of July , he does worry .
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