ought to be a lawsuit,” says Seth Jacobs, arranging lettuce
Saturday at the Troy Waterfront Farmers Market. Flats of tomatoes—beautiful,
bulbous orange and red heirlooms—were stacked on a table nearby.
Jacobs’ Slack Hollow Farms still has tomatoes, but many of
his neighbors in Washington County and at the market do not,
thanks to late blight, which came early this year and has
devastated tomato and potato crops throughout the Northeast.
is nothing new about late blight, a strain of which caused
the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s. However, while professional
growers and informed backyard gardeners can anticipate getting
hit with the fungus in September, this season the natural
wrath came early, and hit tremendously hard. Late blight is
an airborne pathogen that spreads fast and furious once it
takes hold, and treatments, organic and nonorganic, can only
control the progression of the disease, not cure it.
were perfect this year for the blight, with two very wet months
in June and July. Yet, many are speculating that weather alone
is not to blame. Spring shipments of seedlings from Southern
growers to big-box stores like Home Depot and Wal-Mart proved
to be infected with the fungus; Bonnie Greenhouses, a major
national plant distributor, recalled all remaining seedlings
late in June.
never confirmed to have only come in on those seedlings,”
says Jessica Chittenden, spokeswoman for the New York State
Department of Agriculture and Markets. “We were finding late
blight that was in fields started from seed as well. From
our assessment, it’s difficult to say that it’s coming from
one source. The plants were asymptomatic when sold and put
in the ground. The state does inspect plants coming into the
state and makes sure they are grown at certified operations.”
Ag & Markets is cautious about extending blame, an Op-Ed
piece by chef Dan Barber in Sunday’s New York Times
pointed a finger at home gardeners who bought plants from
“industrial breeding operations” in the South and planted
the time-bomb seedlings. Barber also lamented a lack of funding
for inspections by agricultural entities that could help control
the spread of this and other botanical threats.
just bought their seedlings locally we wouldn’t have this
problem,” says David Chinery, echoing another of Barber’s
suggestions. Chinery is the agricultural and horticultural
issue leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Rensselaer
prices, outbreaks of E. coli- and salmonella-infected vegetables,
and Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden on the White House lawn
inspired many people this year to try their hand at backyard
or community gardens. Regardless of who is responsible, the
problem remains, and this is a harsh economic blow to an industry
that operates on marginal profits.
very few growers that are escaping late blight in tomatoes
at least,” says Chuck Bornt, regional vegetable specialist
for Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Some plantings have been
pretty much wiped out. Tomatoes generally are one of the highest-earning
crops that we grow here in the Northeast. They’re a large
percentage of our direct market sales, and a decent wholesale
market as well.” Bornt emphasizes that the tomatoes you see
for sale are safe to eat; late blight is harmful to plants
but not to people.
of Our Farm in Easton, has tomatoes for sale at the Troy Waterfront
Farmers Market. Those tomatoes came from a hundred plants
that are in a hoop house—a kind of greenhouse—she uses to
get her season started. The eight hundred plants she had outdoors
are gone, a history of possibility.
of the tomatoes we’ve been getting have been coming out of
greenhouses,” says Gayle Anderson, local produce buyer for
Honest Weight Food Coop. “We haven’t hardly seen tomatoes
other than that. It’s a calamity, total calamity. We sell
a million tomato plants in the spring, from people who put
in a few plants to somebody who put in 35—and his potatoes
and canning tomatoes are gone. Even before the blight issue
there was the rain and hail, which decimates plantings.”
personal plantings didn’t survive the blight, and she grew
hers from seed. She’s focusing on preserving the foods that
were successful this year, such as green beans and squashes,
but not everyone is as sanguine.
I was unfamiliar with what was going on,” says Willy Lawson,
who grows at the Garland Street Garden, a site prepared and
maintained by Capital District Community Gardens. “I thought
it was too much water, so I just picked the bad ones off.
When I heard the news on the television, I pulled up the whole
plant. It was disappointing. The tomatoes were full, quite
a few tomatoes on each bush.”
Gardens has 46 sites in Rensselaer, Albany and Schenectady
counties, and they’ve asked their gardeners, who number more
than 3,000, to pull all of their tomato and potato plants.
At their big gardens, such as the two-acre Normanskill Garden,
the impact is huge and visible.
we weren’t sure whether it was going to really hit the gardens,
and to what extent, but it has hit every one of our gardens
and decimated all of our tomatoes, and just about all of the
potatoes,” says director Amy Klein.
was initially cautious, but is now aggressively attacking
the issue and investigating how to best protect the gardens
next year. Protection means disposing of plants rather than
composting them, and removing all potatoes and potato plants
this year and next. While the virus needs a living host, and
cannot survive independently in the soil, it can cling to
we’re looking for is community gardeners to be vigilant next
year about potato volunteers that come up, and remove them,”
says Klein. “The issue is wintering over in the tubers that
are left behind, because it is impossible to get every last
potato, as hard as you dig. We have a crew out right now at
Livingston Avenue Gardens, behind the Tivoli Apartments. I
can’t remember how many pounds of potatoes high-school students
planted as part of the Produce Project. [The potatoes were
to be sold to area restaurants.] They’re going to be out there
for a while.”