How Are Your Tomatoes?

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

Between 1845 and 1852 the population of Ireland was reduced by 25 percent. Over a million people perished in one of Western Europe's great famines. The oomycete Phytophthora infestans was responsible for the—as it is more commonly known—Irish Potato Famine. Just three weeks ago P. infestans made its quiet arrival into our fields, and as rain continued to fall (near record levels this year) the spores began their tumultuous spread. Since its arrival we have pulled a quarter of our tomato plants. It has since spread to our potato plants, which we will soon mow to prevent the fungus from going tuber. Acting quickly, we have begun a spraying program on our crops with an organically approved fungicide.

Photo 1 Phytophthora infestans, or late blight, is a highly contagious fungus that destroys tomato and potato plants and has quickly spread to nearly every state in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic. The spores of the fungus are often present in the soil, and small outbreaks are not uncommon in August and September; but the cool, wet weather in June and the aggressively infectious nature of the pathogen have combined to produce what Martin A. Draper, a senior plant pathologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, describes as an “explosive” rate of infection. There are two strains of late blight—tomato and potato—but the illness can jump between the species. A single open lesion on a plant can produce hundreds of thousands of infectious spores.

Fungicides can protect unaffected plants from disease, but there is no cure for late blight. Organic farmers, who are not permitted to use powerful synthetic fungicides, like chlorothalonil, have very few weapons against this aggressive pathogen.

Similar to the hand-me-down costs of our industrial food system, we now see residual effects by an  irresponsible industrial bedding plant nursery. The current outbreak is believed to have spread from plants in garden stores to backyard gardens and commercial fields. Geneticists at Cornell are tracking the blight, and have said the outbreak spread in part from the hundreds of thousands of tomato plants bought by home gardeners at Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Home Depot and Kmart stores starting in April. The wholesale gardening company Bonnie Plants, based in Alabama, had supplied most of the seedlings and recalled all remaining plants starting on June 26.

If the blight continues, there could be widespread destruction of tomato crops—especially organic ones— and higher prices at the market. “Locally grown tomatoes normally get $15 to $20 a box” at wholesale, cites John Mishanec, a pest management specialist at Cornell who visited our farm pre-blight. “Some growers are talking about $40 boxes already.” Almost every farm here in Dutchess County has been affected. It's the quiet gossip at our farmers markets—"How are your tomatoes?" we often ask one another.

Authorities recommend that home gardeners inspect their tomato plants for late blight signs, which include white, powdery spores; large olive green or brown spots on leaves; and brown or open lesions on the stems. Gardeners who find an affected plant should pull it, seal it in a plastic bag and throw it away—not compost it. Many unaffected plants in commercial fields are being sprayed with heavy doses of fungicides to prevent the spread of the disease. (More information can be found at this Cornell Web site,)

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., where I visited this past spring, has lost this year’s tomato crop. Because long-term management of the disease is of greatest importance, we might soon be pulling our entire first crop of tomatoes. In regards to consumers and our CSA members, we will be providing a hand-written letter on how we are actively managing this year's tomato and potato crops.