late blight continues to kill tomatoes
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.
I also had a sad note from the New Hampshire Farm that I distribute CSA shares for. Its a long but very interesting note so I'm posting most of it here. Very sad to think of all the lost crops for local farmers.
I'm nervously watching my little patch of 8 tomato plants tucked in next to my house. But, with fingers crossed, they look fine so far. I make sure not to go near it after being at the community garden. Looks like another day or two til the big tomatoes ripen.
Late Blight appeared on our farm last week. Thursday, in the cherry tomatoes, enough small lesions that we took out the entire planting immediately, with the hope of preventing spread to our main tomato and potato fields. With several advisors from UHN Agricultural Extension, we examined our main season tomatoes and potatoes, and found no sign of Late Blight on Thursday. But by this morning, I found blight lesions in various places in the tomato field, including on one ripening tomato.
The quick summary for you again: Late Blight is a fungus endemic to the southern U.S. that, in wet years, makes its way north to New England. This is usually in September or later, and affects a few potato and tomato fields after the main harvest is concluded. It is not harmful to humans, except in terms of crop loss. It's not normally (never before this season) a big deal for most NE farms. This year, it seems that a single nursery from the south distributed infected tomato seedlings to Wal Mart and Home Depot, among others, who sold those plants to home gardeners across the Northeast. Once these plants were planted outside, the fungus began spreading across our region, some three months ahead of the typical schedule and in time to do serious damage to the harvest of both gardeners and farmers alike. Weather conditions suited the Blight perfectly - cool and wet - and we haven't yet seen the long stretch of hot and dry that might put the Late Blight in check. This week may be the dry and warm we've all been hoping for, though it's probably too late for the tomatoes on our farm.
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. Of course, we have a whole farm to care for, so cannot let everything else go for a potential fool's errand in one crop (even one of the favorites).
Potatoes, we are thanking our lucky stars that we already have a reasonable crop underground - blight notwithstanding, it's been a great potato growing season. However, the Late Blight spores can quickly travel through the vines and rot the potatoes underground. We've decided to kill the potato vines, and enjoy the harvest that is already sized up. Up and down our valley, farmers are doing the same. Conventional farmers use an herbicide for vine kill, and it is certainly disconcerting to see dead potato fields all over in early August. As organic growers, we have a harder road to hoe, as we attempt to mechanically kill all of the vines without damaging the potato hills underneath. First, we've been mowing the field. Later today we'll go through with weedwackers (yes, that's 8 miles of weedwacking!). When that's all done, we'll sweep through with the crew and loppers, knocking back the last remaining living stubs. We're learning that there's no such thing as "overkill" when it come to late blight. We'll see a smaller yield, as some spuds would have continued to size up over the rest of the summer. And we're uncertain if we'll lose some storability with such early vine kill - the potatoes have to store underground for at least two weeks after the vines are dead, to set the skins for storage. We'll see. But plenty of mashed potatoes remain in our future this season!
Of course, we're disappointed about (likely) losing the tomatoes, as we know you are as well (why couldn't it be the turnip blight?!). The epidemic proportions beyond our farm, as well as the connections to large-scale, industrial agriculture, make the blow a bit harder to swallow (or not swallow, as the case will be). We are so deeply sad for many other farmers who are seeing serious financial losses due to the blight. We hope you understand that there is abolutely nothing that we can do to have this crop for you this season. I really, really, really wish we did (can you hear me stomping my feet now?). Of course, everyone knows, not just farmers, that hard work doesn't always lead linearly to good results. We are affirmed in our commitment to growing for you, through Community Supported Agriculture. We are grateful for your support and understanding.
Jenny and Bruce, Picadilly Farm LLC, Winchester, NH
And another quote added Wednesday, August 5. This from a CSA farmer in White River Junction VT, after blight landed on his farm last week:
"All this reminds me that while climate change is the big cloud hanging over the land, it's actually transportation that has done the serious damage to our ecosystems so far. (Both problems being manifestations of fossil fuel use.) We humans love to travel, and we love to move stuff all over the place for fun or profit or by necessity. This brings new species into contact with one another, often to the detriment of one or both. Most of the damage in VT/NH has been to our forests so far - chestnut, elm, butternut, and beech essentially gone, with ash, hemlock, and possible sugar maple in imminent peril. Agriculture is in less danger, primarily because everything we grow is not native to here anyway. Hopefully in this case, a nice cold winter will wipe out the blight and bring us a fresh start next year."