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The New England Tomato Famine
July 30, 2009 8:46 AM   Subscribe

Late blight, the fungal disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine may destroy this years tomato crop in the Northeast and Midatlantic United States.

Late blight thrives in the cool, wet weather the Northeast has been experiencing this season. The fungus is hitting organic farmers particularly hard due to the expense and relative ineffectiveness of organic fungicides. Late blight infections of both tomato and potato crops have been reported in the Hudson Valley region of New York state.

Infected plants appear to have been originally distributed from big box garden centers, with some blaming Bonnie Plants, a large nursery with greenhouses in 38 states. Bonnie Plants claims it was a victim of the disease and that they're being scapegoated due to the timing of their voluntary recall.

Trey Pitsenberger aka The Blogging Nurseryman pointed out that whoever is to blame, the problem was exacerbated by the multistate distribution of plants, rather than sourcing from local greenhouses. Whereas John Mishanec of Cornell University says:

"Farms are inspected, greenhouses are inspected, but garden centers aren't, and the people who work there aren't trained to spot disease."

More on late blight, from Cornell's Plant Diagnostic Clinic
posted by electroboy (46 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
The farmers around here are certainly having problems with fungus. What a bummer; we look forward to tomatoes all year. My plants have been super puny and don't even have blossoms yet, but I'm not a pro, so some of that is not attributable to blight but to me starting from seed too late in the season, especially for a season with so little sun.
posted by Miko at 8:53 AM on July 30, 2009


Certainly did it's level best to hump our tomato crop this year, and after a terrible year for them last summer... Fingers crossed out potatoes are still doing alright though.
posted by opsin at 8:57 AM on July 30, 2009


Well, my tomato plants are huge (over 6 feet) and producing fruit. But just in the past week or so, the bottom stems and leaves are turning brown and falling off, and it looks like it might be moving up the plant. The tops look great and keep growing, but I hope whatever this is doesn't wipe out all my hard work this summer before I get to harvest anything.
posted by genefinder at 8:59 AM on July 30, 2009


Now I understand what the women in the locker room were saying yesterday, something bla bla tomotoe, bla bla disaster. Thanks for this!
posted by jessamyn at 9:01 AM on July 30, 2009


...the bottom stems and leaves are turning brown and falling off, and it looks like it might be moving up the plant.

Mine are doing this too, and I hope that the darn tomatoes would hurry up and ripen already so I can get something out of my efforts to keep the dang plants alive.
posted by alynnk at 9:01 AM on July 30, 2009


Oh, I'm sure our agri-chemical overlords will come up with a new super-blight-tolerant plant soon. It'll have softball-sized, fire engine-red fruit that uniformly tastes like...absolutely nothing at all. It will also be the only tomato one can now successfully grow in North America.
Fungus!
Profit!
posted by Thorzdad at 9:04 AM on July 30, 2009


Another good guide to blight.

Usually by this point in the summer, I'm canning every weekend and can't keep up with the tomatoes. This year...meh. Nothing but green out there (for which I am grateful, in light of the blight). The potatoes are fine...so far. But if my 'maters don't do anything, there goes my year's supply of pizza sauce, spaghetti sauce, ketchup and salsa...
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:07 AM on July 30, 2009


You know, I'm wondering if this isn't behind the AskMe question I posted earlier. (I doubt it, because my plants were started from seed and kept indoors.)

But this breaks my heart -- I can my own tomatoes, largely because there's a farmer's market stand that has big-ass bushels they sell for ten bucks for their "home canners' special" and I've gotten 20 cans out of one of those things, and so I am now used to home-canned tomatoes all year rather than going to the supermarket. :-(
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on July 30, 2009


An interesting and saddening thing about this is that from a consumer (rather than producer) perspective, it's really only affecting the people who care most about the food they put on their table.

By this I mean that people who grow their own tomatoes or buy lovely fresh local tomatoes at farmers' markets will be screwed; everyone else will be continue to be content with the tomato-shaped balls of styrofoam of dubious origin that they're used to purchasing at Stop and Shop in the middle of February.
posted by dersins at 9:16 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


tomato-shaped balls of styrofoam

Hmmm. Sky high tomato prices, cheap styrofoam balls. I think I'm getting an idea...
posted by diogenes at 9:21 AM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


First, this year I built two Earthtainers to grow my tomatoes. They rock! I planted Big Beef and Celebrity varieties and have 1 Big Beef over ten feet tall and 1 Celebrity over 8 feet tall ( I planted herbs, cherry tomatoes, and habaneros in the other container). The seedlings were from a local nursery, but the stock was grown at a regional supplier.

I planted in the middle of April. I have gotten an incredible yield of the tastiest, best looking tomatoes I've ever grown. Lately, 90% of the tomatoes have gotten rotten spots. I thought it was blossom-end rot, but it has been on the sides of the fruit, too. Looking at the pictures, I think this is the culprit.

This sucks; start out with a bang and die with a whimper. I'm going to talk with the local guys at the farmer's market to see if it's possible to stay strictly local next year.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:26 AM on July 30, 2009


Here in New York, we've had a rainy rainy rainy, cooler than normal summer, which hasn't helped any. I'm in the city which seems weirdly protected against many things (our bees, for example, are thriving with no signs of CCD). The plants we got in the ground before the June deluge started are covered with 'maters; I think they're slow to ripen just because of the weather. The ones planted later are still scrawny and just barely bearing.

I do feel bad for the farmers in the Hudson River valley; they've really been walloped.

The suspected distribution of the blight reminds me of the standard pattern found after an outbreak of salmonella, E. coli, etc. -- massive factory-style production, widely distributed. Buy local, eat local...
posted by dogrose at 9:27 AM on July 30, 2009


That's what she said.
posted by Dumsnill at 9:29 AM on July 30, 2009


Every single story I've read about this mentions "big box" stores, but nobody says exactly which big box stores.
posted by Camofrog at 9:41 AM on July 30, 2009


Only one kink in that local part, dogrose:

"Late Blight is an airborne disease -- the spores from your plants can be carried for miles on air currents to infect other peoples' plants and farmers' fields miles away. Double-bag the discarded plants in sealed plastic bags and leave them in the hot sun for a day or two if possible to solarize them, then dispose of them in the trash. "

Which puts my heirloom/locally purchased tomatoes at risk because my neighbor bought hers from Big Box Mart, which buys from Bonnie Plants. It's not clear from the linked article whether BP did its own testing or had testing thrust upon it--but other than that, yes, there is some similarity to the slaughterhouse analogy.

My buying locally is not enough, sadly. I evangelize, but that's not going to stop my neighbors from picking up a $1.99 six-pack of 'mater seedlings on the way home from work...
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:43 AM on July 30, 2009


My tomatoes are doing the exact same thing as gene and aly's - yellowing lower leaves with brown spots. I'm just pruning pruning pruning to get rid of the diseased leaves, and hoping this week's dry spell holds. :(
posted by anthill at 9:45 AM on July 30, 2009


Camofrog, see the NYT:

"Professor Fry, who is genetically tracking the blight, 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. Dennis Thomas, Bonnie Plants’ general manager, said five of the recalled plants showed signs of late blight."
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:48 AM on July 30, 2009


I have a ton of unripe fruit out there that I'm afraid is going to Have Something Happen To It before I can harvest. This isn't making me feel any better, especially as it's been *very* wet this year and the description sounds like what killed last years (much smaller) crop.
posted by DU at 9:55 AM on July 30, 2009


Sounds like a great year for green tomato pickles!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:59 AM on July 30, 2009


I haven't had to worry about blight because we haven't managed to get a single goddamned plant to grow this year. Unless you count the preexisting ivy that's trying to reclaim the garden bed.

(I really should buy a book or something... forget brown thumb, this is a black thumb.)
posted by backseatpilot at 10:12 AM on July 30, 2009


.
posted by TedW at 10:22 AM on July 30, 2009


maybe it's worth pointing out that the irish potato famine occurred before there were 'big box' stores. organic agriculture has certain inherent risks inherent in the enterprise: here in the n.e. there are some big (for this area) (inorganic) potato farmers and they say the fungicides are working fine.

the three biggest variables for agriculture are: water, fertilizer, pests. people on the organic side of things have a lot to say about the evils of industrial agriculture, but i've heard little that addresses the real costs of organic agriculture: you might have great yield one year, and nothing the next. The green revolution is more than just yields but predictability.
posted by geos at 10:44 AM on July 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


And that, my son, is what prompted all those Americans to move to Ireland during the great potato famine of 2010. They still sing songs of it when they gather in their American Pubs and drink their shots of Jack Daniels and chasers of Summit beer, dressed in their indiginous costumes of baggy blue jeans and backwards baseball caps, singing the folk music of their country, such as "The Thong Song" and "All My Exes Live in Texas."
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:49 AM on July 30, 2009 [15 favorites]


Growing up as a kid in Newfoundland, every time we would drive off the island, our car would be searched for vegetables, and often our car would get a (free!) car wash. I always assumed this was due to potato blight, because we're just a bunch of stinkin' Irish over here anyways, and we had to protect the precious P.E.I. crop.

Didn't some of the famine come from really restrictive English tariffs, though?
posted by Lemurrhea at 10:51 AM on July 30, 2009


maybe it's worth pointing out that the irish potato famine occurred before there were 'big box' stores. organic agriculture has certain inherent risks inherent in the enterprise: here in the n.e. there are some big (for this area) (inorganic) potato farmers and they say the fungicides are working fine.

There's always going to be disease and there's always going to be a disease that your current diseasocides don't kill. The reason a potato plant got sick was that they didn't have a fungicide, true. But the reason Ireland was devastated was that they had a monoculture of potatoes. Which means that that one disease they couldn't handle was the disease they ALL couldn't handle, so EVERYTHING died.

This is also the reason "big box" stores are a bad source of plants. (And why "standardizing on Windows" is a poor IT security strategy.) There's only a few varieties from a few sources and they are all tightly coupled.

You can buy a sick plant anywhere and a plant grown under any conditions, organic, robotic or whatever, might become sick. But it's only a major problem if that's the only kind of plant you have.
posted by DU at 10:58 AM on July 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


The exit inspections in Newfoundland are to prevent the spread of Potato Wart Disease.
posted by cardboard at 11:00 AM on July 30, 2009


There's always going to be disease and there's always going to be a disease that your current diseasocides don't kill. The reason a potato plant got sick was that they didn't have a fungicide, true. But the reason Ireland was devastated was that they had a monoculture of potatoes. Which means that that one disease they couldn't handle was the disease they ALL couldn't handle, so EVERYTHING died.

Exactly. The potato blight that lead to the Famine only affected a couple strains of potato plants, and actually was a worldwide thing. The reason why it had so much more of an impact in Ireland than anywhere else was that the rest of the world grew a lot of different strains of potatoes, and also grew a lot of everything else -- but the Irish peasants ONLY grew the strains that were affected. So the rest of the world just went a little hungry -- "oh, crap, not as many potatoes -- okay, we'll just do without gnocchi this year" -- but the starving in Ireland had lost their entire food source.

And, well, we also have the whole issue of there being other food growing in Ireland at the time but that was food that was being grown for export and the landowners didn't want to divert it to feed the starving, but that's a tangent that I usually only get into after my second Magner's down at the pub run by the guy who was once in Black 47.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:11 AM on July 30, 2009


This is the first year I've grown tomatoes. I hate to say that I'm a little relieved to find out that my tomatoes aren't dying because of me.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:01 PM on July 30, 2009


An ever-so-slightly panicked inspection of my potatoes and tomatoes reveals nothing but early blight (I'm pretty sure). I finally found a website that specified one sure way to distinguish: early blight spots are stopped by veins in the leaf. Late blight spiots are not. So, if you have yellow rings with brown or black centers on your tomato leaves, look closely and see if the spots are edged by veins. If so, it's early blight, which is not nearly so bad. Cut and bag diseased leaves, or pull diseased plants if it's too widespread, but for the most part, I get this every year and it doesn't seem to do much harm.

If the spots cross leaf veins (it's easiest to tell if you find a leaf with few spots -- at some point all the spots merge and you can't really tell) you're screwed. Nuke the site from orbit.

It's been cold and rainy here in Maine too. But what are you gonna do? I'm trying to take advantage of it by planting an unusual midsummer crop of spinach and greens, and holding out for a long, warm fall.
posted by rusty at 12:34 PM on July 30, 2009


Quick (slightly pedantic) correction to the original post. Late blight is technically a oomycete, or a water mold, but is commonly referred to as a fungus.

Also, this reference.com entry has some interesting information about the environmental conditions that make potatoes susceptible to late blight. And this is a sample entry from the BLITECAST (yes, seriously) information service, that advises growers of conditions that may warrant fungicide application.
posted by electroboy at 12:44 PM on July 30, 2009


This is the first year I've grown tomatoes. I hate to say that I'm a little relieved to find out that my tomatoes aren't dying because of me.

This.
posted by rollbiz at 1:20 PM on July 30, 2009


Astro Zombie, no one who can get Summit is going to move to Ireland, spud crud or no. Go back to Minneapolis!
posted by wenestvedt at 1:21 PM on July 30, 2009


Meanwhile here in the Northwest, where Seattle recorded its hottest day in history, my tomatoes are going gangbusters save an heirloom Brandywine that can't seem to handle the tiniest amount of stress. None of them were from big box stores.

It's always best to go to a local, non-chain nursery, since they know the local climate and buy accordingly. Swanson's here in Seattle is expensive, but I've never had a failed plant from them, where 1/3 of the plants I'd get from Home Depot would croak.
posted by dw at 1:36 PM on July 30, 2009


Obviously there's only one thing to do, but it MUST be done.

In order to protect my garden's tomatoes, we have to seal off California completely, and nuke the entire Eastern seaboard. Sorry Easterners, but you have to understand it's for a good cause- my tomatoes.
posted by happyroach at 2:02 PM on July 30, 2009


Here in Toronto, I've been getting a lot of golden grape tomatoes, but my beefsteaks have been huge damn teases, just this past week going whitish-green instead of pure green. No sign of blight here -- yet -- but I am prepared for some cunning local Canadian doom anyway.
posted by maudlin at 4:19 PM on July 30, 2009


I've feeling slightly better about my ongoing battle with Tomato hornworms which showed up this year. At least I can pick these big buggers off my tomatoes.
posted by Mitheral at 4:27 PM on July 30, 2009


So... I've seen lots of coverage of this, but not a single mention of whether infected plants are harmful to humans in any way. Anyone got any info on that?
posted by Caviar at 7:13 PM on July 30, 2009


The Cornell site from OP has these photos of late blighted tomatoes. Fortunately, my plants don't look like the pictures. But I've had yellowing, browning leaves (about 5% of the total foliage) at the bottoms of all my plants, and I've torn them off, and the fruit just keeps on coming. I thought that was normal for tomatoes to do. Isn't it?
posted by buzzv at 7:26 PM on July 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


But I've had yellowing, browning leaves (about 5% of the total foliage) at the bottoms of all my plants, and I've torn them off, and the fruit just keeps on coming. I thought that was normal for tomatoes to do. Isn't it?

Yes, it's common. I wouldn't worry if it's just at the bottom. You can try some fertilizer - for tomatoes I'd use something pretty mild and even, like 8-8-8. Sometimes, if your yields are heavy, the plants will run low on phosphorous. The leaves will turn brown with dark purple spots. Then you need to feed with something with a bigger middle number.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:12 PM on July 30, 2009


not a single mention of whether infected plants are harmful to humans in any way. Anyone got any info on that?
posted by telstar at 10:07 PM on July 30, 2009


Caviar: No, they are not, other than in the larger sense of harm by not having tomatoes or potatoes to eat. They are kind of icky, and I sure wouldn't want to try to eat an obviously infected fruit or tuber. But potatoes or tomatoes from infected plants can be eaten if they don't show any symptoms, and should be consumed quickly because they won't keep.
posted by rusty at 7:21 AM on July 31, 2009


buzzv: Mine always do that too. It's nothing to worry about unless it starts to make a serious dent in the total foliage. Like >50%.
posted by rusty at 7:22 AM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


not a single mention of whether infected plants are harmful to humans in any way. Anyone got any info on that?

I can't remember which article it's from, or whether it's included in the links, but one of the authors said it was not dangerous, and that infected tomatoes could be eaten if you cut out the bad spots.
posted by electroboy at 8:16 AM on July 31, 2009


Down here in drought country, the tomatoes have been doing phenomenally well, I can't keep up with the harvest from just three plants. But nothing else has survived the heat and the mandatory water restrictions. Some sort of fungus got our melons and squash this year, and the beans...I dunno what happened to the beans and peppers, they just refuse to grow. They're the same size now as they have been for months. No flowers, no growth, nothing. I keep wanted to make sure they're not silk or something.
posted by dejah420 at 9:51 AM on July 31, 2009


My bell peppers are crazy stunted but my hot peppers, especially the Thai Dragon and Kung Pao are huge. Amazing really.
posted by Mitheral at 1:02 PM on August 1, 2009


My jalapenos went crazy too. Anybody know a good way to pickle them?

yes I could use askme, but I need this weeks question for something else.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 3:37 PM on August 1, 2009


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