Ag at Large: Planting by tape saves labor costs

(Photo courtesy of Plant Tape/Tanimura & Antle)

California’s vegetable crop growers are developing a kind of hands-off process for planting seeds that cuts labor costs, ensures a consistent stand and avoids post-plant thinning. Call it high tech if you like, but neither robots or drones are part of the process.

The simplest description of it: seeds are planted at a predetermined spacing onto a nutrient rich strip of soil-like tape, grown under tightly controlled conditions, usually in a greenhouse, then transplanted by a machine that lays lengths of the tape in the field. Irrigation, pest control and other cultural measures are carried out through harvest.

The process was pioneered and is being refined by lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley, but growers of tomatoes that are processed into catsup (ketchup, if you like), are adapting the technique as well. They hope to apply it eventually in the 225,000 acres they have planted annually in recent years. It will be a tremendous labor saver.

Machines that allow such consolidation of the planting function have been in the process of development for several years, not always domestically. Longtime Salinas grower Tanimura & Antle was so impressed by such a machine, developed and manufactured in Spain, that it bought the company.

Tanimura & Antle’s process for establishing a lettuce crop on tape, nurturing it in their own greenhouse and then laying the tape by machine has been reported in some agricultural publications that circulate to California growers. Only the intricate details of the equipment have been withheld.

Nearly all of the typical vegetable crops grown in the Salinas and Santa Maria areas seem to be reasonable prospects for planting by the new, improved tape method. Among them are romaine, beets, cabbages, kale and onions. In Spain, a major crop that uses the method is leeks. Planting has just begun in the traditional onion-growing region of Vidalia, Georgia, where tape planting is expected to play a big part

Painting with a broad brush the axiom is that any crop with seed that will fit and take root on the tape is a prospect for the planting machine. Crops that grow from relatively small seeds are the most likely.

A basic sales appeal for the Tanimura & Antle machine is its promise of reducing what has been a traditional planting crew of 16 workers to only two. Replacing hand labor with automated machinery and equipment provides enormous cost savings, whatever the crop, and no matter the high cost of the equipment.

The recent partnership developed between vegetable growers in the Salinas area and the high tech industry in neighboring Silicon Valley encourages further partnerships and applications. Lettuce is still expected to be lettuce, but it might be rooted in futuristic technology as well as the soil.

In some cases, the vegetable seeds are placed into molded soil pods which are attached to the planting tape. After a few days in the greenhouse, the seeds have rooted through the tape, attaching each young plant firmly and allowing movement of the tape and eventually its mechanical spreading in the field.

The tedious and costly thinning of the tender plants is minimized by the pre-spacing on the tape, further reducing the cost of hand labor in the field.

Only so much can be done in dealing with the natural growing process, but planting on tape is a major accomplishment. And you won’t even be able to detect a difference in taste, texture or most of all, the health benefits.