The fruits and vegetables we use in our products are grown on farms that collectively span thousands of acres of land.
Although we do not own any of these farms, we help our growers implement advanced agricultural practices to reduce the amount of water, fertilizer, and pesticide needed to grow healthy and productive crops. We provide support through programs that are integrated from initial research through to the final product.
Partnering with Growers
We interact with our growers in several ways. We provide growers with seeds for certain crops, including peas; Blue Lake, Romano, and wax beans; corn; spinach; carrots; and beets. Seeds produced by our research and development teams are bred naturally, with no genetic engineering. We carefully select those plants that exhibit desirable traits to produce stronger crops.
Seeds for the peas, beans, corn, and spinach are ones that originate from varieties that we have bred to exhibit beneficial characteristics such as high yield, hardiness, and pest-resistance. We produce seeds for pea and bean crops through our Del Monte Seed Operations.
Del Monte plants hold annual meetings with their growers. These gatherings focus on a wide range of issues, from the introduction of new crop varieties to concerns related to water use and irrigation. Meetings also provide growers with the opportunity to share best practices and review with us our standard Company procedures with regard to pest management.
Reducing Fertilizer Use
Our growers apply fertilizer to crops to ensure that the plants receive enough nutrients to grow vigorously and produce abundant yields. Too much fertilizer, however, can be worse than not enough: in many crops, excess nutrients can lead to lush vegetative growth and reduced crop yields. Fertilizers can also leach into groundwater, or wash off with the rain into nearby waterways, entering polluting streams and causing problems such as algae growth. Finally, synthetic fertilizers are often based on petroleum—an expensive and non-renewable resource.
Given the environmental risks and operating costs associated with improper or excessive fertilizer use, our research teams coordinate with our growers to identify the optimal amount of fertilizer per crop. We’ve found that some crops need much less fertilizer to flourish than expected. For example, over the past several years, our pea and green bean growers have reduced fertilizer application by upwards of 25 percent over 50,000 acres. Although rising fertilizer costs contributed to this decision, Del Monte research also showed the crops would do as well or better with less fertilizer.
Our expert plant breeders and research farm staff work in tandem with our growers to introduce new crop varieties with improved yields. The benefits are significant: for example, a 30 percent increase in yield means that 30 percent less acreage needs to be planted and 30 percent fewer inputs such as fertilizer or fuel for farm equipment are needed to harvest the same amount of crop. Over the past 48 years, our Blue Lake green bean breeding program and new growing practices have increased yields by nearly 200 percent.
Reducing Pesticide Use
Since the early 1980s, we have helped growers apply the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to minimize the amount of pesticides used to control insects, other pests, and crop diseases. By limiting pesticide use, we reduce the potential for contaminated runoff from fields, protect the health of farm workers, prevent the destruction of beneficial insects and other field organisms, and ultimately decrease the chance that any pesticide residue remains on the crop when it is harvested and processed.
We ask our growers to:
- apply our model pesticide control program,
- use pest-resistant varieties where available,
- rotate crops to minimize the effect of soil insects and diseases, and
- avoid application of sewage sludge and biosolids (as fertilizers).
Our work to disseminate best practice in IPM as a way to minimize pesticide use has resulted in great success. For example, our IPM research team found that a new seed treatment provided 30 days of protection for sprouting green beans. Once implemented, the treatment eliminated the use of 3,700 gallons of broadcast insecticide per year.
We invest significant resources in breeding disease-resistant plant varieties. We’ve developed several varieties of spinach that are resistant to white rust and downy mildew, devastating diseases that can decimate spinach crops. By planting these varieties of spinach, we can eliminate the need for broadcast spraying of fungicide. We’ve found that once broad-spectrum fungicides are removed native fungi attack the aphids (another pest species) that sometimes infest spinach. This natural pest control by the native fungi in turn allows growers to stop applying insecticides to control the aphids. In sum, our breeding program succeeded in removing two pesticides from the system and allowed spinach cultivation to return to a more natural state.
In another example, our green bean breeding program has developed several new white mold resistant varieties. If these new varieties prove successful, the replacement of current green bean varieties with these plants will allow our field department in the Midwest to reduce the use of fungicide sprays by 50 percent or more over some 18,000 acres.
Our strict control over the use of pesticides on crops designated for Del Monte use, including computerized tracking, compliance checks, and traceability, has enabled us to successfully meet our goal of no detectable pesticide residues in our finished products.
In the future, organic agriculture (which avoids the application of synthetic pesticides) may also help to cut the overall amount of pesticides used across our product base. Currently, only a small amount of farm acreage supplies Del Monte with organic tomatoes, peas, green beans, and corn. We will consider the conversion of additional acreage to organic production if market conditions show an increase in consumer demand for organic products. Meanwhile, we continue to learn new innovative methods of crop management from our efforts in organic production.
We have participated in a number of IPM-related partnerships and initiatives to share knowledge and best practices:
Charter member and active participant in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (PESP) Board member of the National Foundation for IPM Education Partner in the California Pear Pest Management Research Fund, which has funded more than $2 million in IPM and sustainability research Lead Processor in the Pew Center for Agricultural Partnerships (CAP) Northwest Pear Initiative
Increasing Crop Density
Del Monte researchers are investigating increased crop density (spacing plants closer together) as a way to increase yield per acre while cutting pesticide and fertilizer use. For example, we recently converted 100 percent of our spinach production operations in Texas to a high-density configuration. This change resulted in a 42 percent reduction in cultivated acreage, an 82 percent reduction in fungicide application (on a per ton basis), and an 18 percent reduction in fertilizer application.
High-density agriculture requires significant investment in research. Growers must also switch to new equipment that can accommodate closely spaced plants. The potential benefits with regard to resource and cost savings, however, are also significant. We will therefore continue to explore the possibility of rolling out high-density techniques to other crops.
Our growers use various irrigation systems to supplement natural rainfall and ensure a steady and reliable water supply for their crops. We are mindful that in many parts of the country, water scarcity is a real and pressing environmental concern. We thus work with our growers in implementing the least water-intensive cultivation methods possible.
We’ve recently embarked on a new irrigation optimization project with other food processors and the California Tomato Growers Association. The initiative will focus on optimizing water use while maintaining crop productivity, thus lessening the strain on drought-stricken regions of the state.