The Great East Coast Tomato Famine

The New York Times has more information on a story I first saw in the Plattsburgh newspaper a couple weeks ago:

A highly contagious fungus that destroys tomato plants has quickly spread to nearly every state in the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic, and the weather over the next week may determine whether the outbreak abates or whether tomato crops are ruined, according to federal and state agriculture officials… The spores of the fungus, called late blight, 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, described as an “explosive” rate of infection. William Fry, a professor of plant pathology at Cornell, said, “I’ve never seen this on such a wide scale.”

The disease — the same thing that caused the Irish potato famine — can jump from species to species, from tomatoes to tubers. I’ve been growing some “highly experimental” potatoes this summer, and I’ve been checking them anxiously. So far, my tater tots are doing okay. (Or, as well as can be expected when they’re being grown by a doofus — let’s just say that they’re “giving their lives for science.”)

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.

As I said earlier when I first noticed this story… “thinking globally, acting locally” is not necessarily going work out. Globalism (in the form of big-box agriculture) is always going to harm localism (the small farmer or backyard garden) in the end. Oh, and the organic farmers? Screwed. They aren’t allowed to use fungicides that would protect their plants against this disease. I wonder if this blight will grow large enough to cause the Northeast’s farmers to demand that their state governments initiate stricter controls on fruit and vegetable plants, like they do in Western states.

(As if this new plague weren’t enough, we are still under biological attack.)

You can find more information on late blight at this website:

7 thoughts on “The Great East Coast Tomato Famine

  1. David Bacon

    I am N of Detroit MI in Shelby Township.

    I bought one of these tomato plants from KMarts, and it looked perfectly healthy, but this blight showed up about a month ago (Today = July 20, 2009), and I have been holding it at bay with a vinegar spray once a week. Otherwise the plant is growing great, with lots of cherry tomatoes, yum.

    Now that you have informed me what I am up against, I will spray every day, and snip all affected leaves off.

    I’ll check back here to see if you accept follow-up stories.

  2. Robinia

    Globalization is a public health nightmare– for people as well as plants and animals. When pandemic flu comes to your town, it is very likely to have followed the supply chain from Asia, South America, or other distant parts.

    Diversity and its importance was the grim lesson humanity was to have learned from the Potato Famine. If we just lose our Nightshade family crops, we will be lucky. Think, people, before it is too late!

  3. Josh S

    Robinia…I suspect that you might agree, that with rumbles of global geo-engineering, but the more importantly the forces and feedbacks in what EO Wilson calls the Death of Birth, that it’s already too late.

  4. Ellen Post author

    Well, one of my tater tots is dying. However, I don’t think it’s late blight. It’s just going all sort of droopy and yellow.

    Plants tend to run away from me screaming. I could kill a cactus by just looking at it.

  5. Robinia

    Too late for some things, not others. It is always a good day to become more aware of how the ecosystems around you function.

  6. Mrs. Mecomber

    I mentioned this a few weeks ago on my home improvement blog, when I discovered that ALL the Big Box plant sellers got their plants from THE SAME facility in the south. Unbelievable!!!!!! Outrageous!!!

    I recommend planting by seeds as much as possible. Of course, now we all have to purge our soil…

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