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Jul 31, 2009 05:07 AM

Concern Grows About Virulent NE Crop Disease

This is the same disease which caused the 19th century Iriah potato famine.

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  1. Those who bought shares in vegetable CSAs can expect not to get any tomatoes.

    "She added that “virtually all’’ of the estimated 100 farms in Massachusetts that use the community-supported agriculture, or CSA, model have lost their tomato crop over the past several days. Such farms enlist members who pay farmers for crops before the harvest season and then receive a weekly installment of fresh produce from late spring to early fall.

    That model has protected such farmers from huge financial losses, said several owners of small farms. Because their customers paid upfront early in the year, they share the risk of what happens during the growing season. And because the farmers grow a variety of vegetables, they still have produce to sell at farmers’ markets and to wholesalers."

    1. And it's running rampant through the rest of the Northeast as well...this from Northern NJ:

      1. < "Organic farms, including Lindentree, have been hit especially hard by the outbreak, because they CANNOT use the strong, synthetic fungicides that work best to protect their harvest." >
        Emphasis added.....

        Shouldn't that be WILL NOT?
        Although I appreciate organic farming, aren't these farmers putting home gardeners, all other farmers and commercial crops at risk by refusing to contain this disease by using fungicides?
        Isn't there some organic means to control this? Or an exception that can be made to organic certification so that this blight can be contained without harming others?
        Will this spore live in the soil and reappear next year? Will it spread to other areas of the country unless effective measures are used to destroy it?

        Disclosure: Just asking. I'm basically a libertarian who believes that people should live and let live, be allowed to do as they please, at their own expense, as long as they don't harm others. That implies a personal responsibility to society at large and to your neighbors.

        12 Replies
        1. re: MakingSense

          They cannot use the synthetic fungicides and still call themselves organic farms. Like I cannot eat meat and still call myself a vegetarian.

          I'm in the live & let live camp myself, although ethics-wise, this story reminds me of those parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids.

          1. re: small h

            The USDA organic rules allow substitution in some cases of non-organic ingredients if an organic one is not available. The non-organic ones can't exceed a certain percentage of the total.
            Wouldn't it be possible to make a special exception if this crop disease threatens agriculture, not only in the NE, but if there is a possibility that it could spread to crops throughout the US?
            If it's just a question of "calling" yourself "organic," of course they couldn't/wouldn't sell these products, but their crops in following years would not have traces of the fungicide.
            Sort of like a Papal Dispensation for one crisis year to "do no harm" to others?

            1. re: MakingSense

              There are organic methods, just not very effective ones, according to the fine folks at Cornell (my favorite agricultural authority). So I guess using a non-organic method isn't an option.


              To my mind, it's better to have non-organic tomatoes than no tomatoes at all. But I'm not a purist.

              1. re: small h

                My concern is the effect that their refusal to use it - which I would ordinarily support - is harming others.
                The regulations that govern organic certification are basically rules that are agreed upon, and there are many chemicals that are allowed. The number of years that a farm must be free of inputs is arbitrary, so is there any reason why there couldn't be a one-time emergency exception? The crops are already destroyed for this year...
                I have no idea if the particular fungicide that controls/destroys this disease lingers in the soil or not, but that would certainly be a factor to consider.

                1. re: MakingSense

                  I share your concern, but at least according to this article, organic farmers are destroying their diseased plants to minimize the risk of contamination. Another problem with the approved organic fungicide is that it has to be re-applied after every rain. This summer, it's been raining practically every day.


                  I can't make heads or tails of the reasoning behind the regulations governing organic farming. I started reading about Horizon Organics a while back and just threw up my hands.

                  1. re: small h

                    I really support what they're trying to do and hope that we can all move toward fewer chemical inputs of all kinds, just as I wish that people wouldn't rush to take antibiotics at the first sniffle or use anti-bacterial everything, but if they're only plowing the disease under without destroying it, will it come back next year and spread?

                    As a tomato fanatic, I don't know what I would do without my red slices and sauces.

                    1. re: MakingSense

                      This is a quandary that is compounded by the fact that using fungicide has the potential to help develop "super" fungal diseases that will resist the "cure". In a way.

                      I too love tomatoes and am quite sad at the poor state of my own tomato plants this year (I am in MA).

                      1. re: pickledtink

                        That's a problem with any injudicious use of any product. I wasn't suggesting that. But if a serious problem threatens crops, prudent use can be advisable if it's not overdone, or applied when not absolutely necessary as determined on a case-by-case basis.
                        People can become resistant to antibiotics but sometimes they're necessary.

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          Oh, I agree with you, judicious use is very important. I think I was responding more to some of the comments to the article on ("live by organic, die by organic" was one of them). Fungicides, although not as potentially hazardous to humans as some pesticides/herbicides, should still be used in a way that will maximize their effect and not be seen as a panacea, IMHO.

                          It seems unlikely that this will be as big of a problem next year, as this wet weather we are having here is in sync with the fact that last year had a somewhat strong La Nina effect in the South Pacific which leads to wet, cool weather hear.

                          It seems that this year is shaping up toward more El Nino conditions which means that we will likely have hotter, drier weather hear next year.

                          1. re: pickledtink

                            "Live by, die by" sounds harsh but it is pretty true for anyone who is inflexible about anything. There's a problem with people having been forced to dig in their heels to defend one side or the other. Either all-or-nothing-organic or spray-the-hell-out-of-it, without recognizing that there may be a sensible middle ground, like Integrated Pest Management in gardening.

                            I am loathe to use anything in my gardens, even for ornamentals. Then every few years, the raspberries get fungus very early in the year, before they flower, long before they set fruit. As much as I hate to, the only way to control it is with a fungicide. I called the companies and got through to chemists until I found one that I was satisfied with that doesn't stick around. It's completely gone after a few good rainstorms. No traces at all in the berries. I only use it every few years. When I have problems in the other years, I can prune the bad branches out before the problem spreads - but then I don't have acres of berries to tend by hand.

                            Well-tended gardens and farms shouldn't require oceans of chemicals - or even any at all - on an ongoing basis. I just think it's sensible to use it sparingly when necessary, like taking prescription medication.

                  2. re: MakingSense

                    We're living the blight story - growing tomatoes in Connecticut. We strive to maintain organic standards, but will never attain them because we're in a community garden; and when the soil is turned every year, some of our soil goes to our neighbors, who may or may not follow organic practices, and vice versa.

                    Some of our tomato plants (so far, not the taters) have been touched by the blight, but we've been able to at least stall it by spraying with fish emulsion (organic) and Fungonil (not organic) every five days or as close as we can get to that because it rains every other freakin' day lately. And not just rain, but heavy, hours-long rains. We feed more frequently than we would other years, too. The Ag Station guy's advice was to just try to keep the plants as healthy and strong as possible.

                    The thing with the blight spore is, sure it's around. We know it's been around since at least the 1840s; it never went anywhere. It's a problem this year because in the Northeast, weather conditions -- lots of rain, cooler temperatures -- have been favorable for blight. We're used to getting blight in mid-September or so most years, it's just a weather-related fact of life.

                    Luckily, we grow veggies to eat and give away, it's not an income stream for us. But there's not much use being concerned about the spores coming back next year because 1) they never really leave; and 2) it depends on what next year's weather is going to be like. And we can't control that.

                    For what it's worth, though, at the end of the year we will dispose of the tomato and potato plants in sealed plastic bags, versus plowing them under or throwing them into the woods -- because you might as well take any precautions that you can without making yourself crazy.

                    1. re: harrie

                      Thank you. That makes a great deal of sense.
                      If this spore has been around but basically dormant, like so many other diseases, and only has been a problem this year because of the unusual weather conditions, then there isn't much to worry about on a long-term basis.
                      It would seem that the local ag agents should be working with the organic farmers however to do on a large scale what you're planning to do with the diseased plants from your community garden plot. That seems wise.
                      Some type of disposal other than plowing under might be called for to avoid a repeat of this problem next year.
                      As you say, we can't control things, least of all the weather, but wise land management can help.