You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster
By DAN BARBER
IF the hardship of growing vegetables and fruits in the Northeast has made anything clear, it’s that the list of what can go wrong in the field is a very long one.
We wait all year for warmer weather and longer days. Once we get them, it seems new problems for farmers rise to the surface every week: overnight temperatures plunging close to freezing, early disease, aphid attacks. Another day, another problem.
The latest trouble is the explosion of late blight, a plant disease that attacks potatoes and tomatoes. Late blight appears innocent enough at first — a few brown spots here, some lesions there — but it spreads fast. Although the fungus isn’t harmful to humans, it has devastating effects on tomatoes and potatoes grown outdoors. Plants that appear relatively healthy one day, with abundant fruit and vibrant stems, can turn toxic within a few days. (See the Irish potato famine, caused by a strain of the fungus.)
According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.
It’s important to note, too, that this year there have been many more hosts than in the past as more and more Americans have taken to gardening. Credit the recession or Michelle Obama or both, but there’s been an increased awareness of the benefits of growing your own food. According to the National Gardening Association, 43 million households planned a backyard garden or put a stake in a share of a community garden in 2009, up from 36 million in 2008. That’s quite a few home gardeners who — given the popularity of the humble tomato — probably planted a starter or two this summer. Read More
With the tomato blight in the Northeast garnering so much attention, it’s interesting to look at the cause. It seems that having so many amateur gardeners trying to grow plants that they have limited knowledge of really contributed to the problem. So in the first summer after the White House encouraged everyone to plant a garden, we have a devastating disease outbreak. While I doubt the locavore movement will be accepting blame any time soon, the fact of the matter is that a lot of produce was destroyed this summer in the Northeast and they will be relying on other areas of the country, including our modern food production systems, to make up the difference.