Bookmark and Share August 27, 2009 - Dave Mulder

Late blight of 2009

Look out tomato and potato lovers! Late blight, the plant disease blamed for the 1840s Irish potato famine, has been ravaging Eastern U.S. gardens all growing season. With cooler, wet weather moving into the region, the Midwest and Northern Plains states are picking up their first reported cases.

Late blight is a fungal disease that attacks the leaves and fruits of potatoes, but can also spread to tomatoes. Depending on weather conditions, the highly infectious blight can destroy entire crops within days if it goes unchecked. Fungicides exist to combat late blight, but at best they only slow down its spread.

What does this mean for locavores? The annual tomato harvest of mid-to-late August has been severely stunted. Residents of Northeast and mid-Atlantic states have seen much higher prices than usual on tomatoes and potatoes, in some cases 2-3 times as much. It’s also much harder to find tomatoes in bulk, say if you want to go canning.

While late blight is not uncommon in late August, the scale and scope of this year’s epidemic has reached historical size. Accounts from farmers impacted by the fungus are downright frightening.

The first signs of the fungus are gray leaves. A couple of days later, the plants are dead. “It’s nasty,” Mr. King said. “You go out to look at your tomato plants and two days later your plant’s dead … black crisp dead.”

“We have it. It’s horrible,” said Kira Kinney, of Evolutionary Organics in New Paltz. “We’ve lost most of the potatoes and one entire field of tomatoes and now it’s starting in the other tomatoes. … You are supposed to maybe hold it at bay but once it’s started it’s in there.”

Still, the spread of late blight is unlikely to affect large tomato processors who typically import their red fruit from places like California.

This outbreak is more likely to impact people who cultivate¬† vegetables in home gardens and the farmers who grow their crops for local eaters to buy at market. It’s a sad story, and hopefully one that won’t repeat itself in 2010.

As late blight progresses (or diminishes) through the rest of the harvest season, we will try to post updates.

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