Digging the Dirt: Late Blight is Destroying Tomatoes and Farmers

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Question: This year, did you purchase your vegetable gardens plants from a big-box home improvement/garden center store?  Or did you start your plants from seed, or purchase starters from your locally supplied nursery?  The decision of many home gardeners -especially first-time vegetable gardeners- to plant starters purchased from big-box stores is being called the reason for the Late Blight that has destroyed tomato crops along the North East and Midwest.

According to Cornell University, late blight is:

  . . .caused by an oomycete pathogen that survives from one season to the next in infected potato tubers. This organism is well known for its ability to produce millions of spores from infected plants under the wet weather conditions that favor the disease. Early in the season, the disease can be introduced into a field or garden on infected seed potatoes,  compost piles, or infected tomato transplants brought into the area.

Spores produced on infected potatoes and tomatoes can travel through the air, land on infected plants, and if the weather is sufficiently wet, cause new infections.

...This disease is capable of wiping out not only your entire potato and tomato crop but also commercial fields very quickly under wet conditions, and farmers who grow potatoes or tomatoes are at serious risk of losing their entire income from these crops.

Late blight is common in the Southern state - when it hits further north it's normally late enough in the season that it does not effect more than a few plants.  This year, however, weather conditions were perfect to encourage the growth and spread of Late Blight over miles and states.  All that was needed was an innocent-appearing source.  That source came in the appearance of Bonnie Plants -a grower of mass market starter plants.

According to Growing For Market (via Chelsea Green):

William Fry, professor of plant pathology at Cornell University, told the New York Times that one cause of the rapid spread of the disease was hundreds of thousands of tomato plants sold at Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Kmart stores, grown at a Bonnie Plants greenhouse in the South. Bonnie Plants recalled all remaining tomato plants from the retailers on June 26, a move that a company spokesman said cost more than $1 million in sales. The company also denied liability for the spread of the disease, saying that only five of the recalled plants showed signs of late blight.

What effect is this blight having on farmers and home gardeners? The spores can travel 50 miles on a healthy breeze, infecting any plants in that area.  For many home gardeners and crop farmers, they had beautiful, healthy plants growing.  Four days later, the farmers were plowing under dead plants -entire crops- and searching for a cause.  Home gardeners were wondering why they suddenly had dead and dying plants. 

Kathy at skippy's vegetable garden reported her blight damage on August 4th:

On yesterday's visit to my community plot I found late blight on all of my remaining tomato plants. My next chore will be to remove them all. Bag and dispose in the trash. I was hoping a few of my plants would have survived, but all have succumbed. 16 plants - 11 varieties that I babied since March.

She also quoted a note from a local farmer (Jenny and Bruce at Picadilly Farm, Winchester, NH) at the local CSA office:

There is no organic control for this fungus once it appears, and conventional sprays have limited effectiveness as well. The organic copper fungicides that we have used over the past 6 weeks may have some preventative effect, but because they are washed off in every rain, this has been a challenge. With the blight on our farm, the only options are to burn, bury, or discard affected plants to try to slow the spread through our farm and to other growers.

So right now, we are facing limited choices and a mountain of work. The sunny weather will be on our side as we proceed. In the tomatoes, the cherries are already untrellised and tilled in. Because the main season crop looks beautiful and is just beginning to ripen, we're going to try pulling out infected plants one by one, as well as using our hand-held flame weeder to burn infected leaves. Honestly, we're not hopeful, particularly because other farmers who are further along with the blight aren't reporting great success with these "pruning" strategies. We'll try this approach for a few days.

WCSH6 in Portland, ME., reported on Bruce Hincks at Meadowood Farm:

His tomato and potato crops were wiped out in a matter of days. "I was up here on a Sunday and they were four to five feet tall on these fences and I came up on the following Tuesday, which is two days, to start picking potatoes and other things that are up here and everything was just black as you see it now," said Hincks. Hincks says his fifteen hundred plants were on course to yield about $20,000 worth of tomatoes.

The effect on the small organic gardeners is devastating.  Bloggers-in this case Sarah, from Sarah's Cucina Bella,  hit with their own loss of plants are still more concerned with their small farmer neighbors:

I have probably mentioned before that my cousins are farmers and operate an organic farm. I buy a lot of our veggies from them. But I am so devastated to say that this year, they will not have any tomatoes. At all. If you haven’t heard, late blight has struck with a vengeance here in Connecticut, canceling an heirloom tomato fest and just about ruining the whole season. And unfortunately, my tomatoes have fallen victim too. It’s with a heavy heart that I have to pull the plants and dispose of them (plants with late blight are not recommended for composting).

These small organic gardeners did NOT purchase their stock from Bonnie Plants.  Instead, many of them chose to grow the delicious older heirloom tomato varieties.  These tomatoes provide variation on taste, acidity, and color that cannot be found in modern hybrid tomatoes;  however, the older varieties also do not necessarily have the resistance to diseases that many of the hybrids have.  When late blight struck early, these farms were wiped out as quickly as the home gardener growing tomatoes for the first time. 

Civil Eats -who found evidence of Late Blight on his rooftop garden -is suggesting that the USDA allow NE farmers hit with Late Blight to qualify for crop insurance payoffs.

You can learn to identify Late Blight by viewing the slide show at Grow It Eat It.

Debra Roby blogs her creative life at A Stitch in Time and her journey to fitness at Weight for Deb. Her own tomatoes have been destroyed, too -but by gophers.

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