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Late blight yields bitter harvest

Disease that spawned Ireland’s potato famine hits New England

Organic farms, including Lindentree Farm in Lincoln, have been hit especially hard by the outbreak of the contagious fungus. Organic farms, including Lindentree Farm in Lincoln, have been hit especially hard by the outbreak of the contagious fungus. (Photos By Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Bina Venkataraman
Globe Correspondent / July 31, 2009

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LINCOLN - Slumped in his tractor, Ari Kurtz looked out at his fields, where rotting fruit and gnarled plants fringed with dead leaves were all that remained of what should have been a bountiful tomato harvest.

In just the past week, Kurtz, the farm manager at Lindentree Farm, lost the season’s crop, a half-acre field that at this time of year typically yields up to 2,400 pounds per week, to a contagious fungus that has spread to farms and home gardens across the Northeast.

“You have to understand how disappointing this is,’’ said Kurtz, who added that in 20 years of farming he has never seen such a virulent crop disease. “They looked wonderful; then we looked everywhere, and they were dying.’’

Produce farmers in Massachusetts and elsewhere in New England - already struggling with one of the wettest, coolest summers in recent history - are now battling late blight, a fungus with tiny spores spread by the wind that rots tomato and potato plants. It is the same disease that was responsible for the 19th-century Irish potato famine.

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.

“This has been one of the most challenging years organic farmers have faced in the Northeast,’’ said Bill Duesing, president of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. Organizers recently canceled Slow Food Connecticut’s heirloom tomato festival, Duesing added, because tomatoes are too scarce and the farm that hosts it is too soggy.

At least 400 farms have been affected by late blight in New England, according to agriculture extension specialists. In Massachusetts alone, an estimated 100 to 200 farms have the disease on their tomato and potato crops, said Ruth Hazzard, an agriculture extension educator at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who works with vegetable farmers throughout the state. “As far as I can tell, it’s everywhere,’’ she said.

It is too early to determine what percentage of the state’s tomato crop has been lost or how big the financial losses will be to farmers, said Scott Soares, commissioner for the state Department of Agricultural Resources. By yesterday, 100 of 539 Massachusetts tomato growers had reported late blight to the department, including seven with major crop loss. Soares said in a phone interview that he hoped farmers who found the disease would report it to the state, because his department would rely on such reports if it decides to apply for federal disaster aid.

Late blight appears periodically in New England. Typically it does so later in the season, when it poses less risk to the tomato harvest. But this year, the same rainy, cool weather that has delayed summer produce such as eggplants and peppers has allowed the disease to flourish earlier and to spread more widely.

Plant disease specialists say they believe infected tomato plants sold to thousands of home gardeners via major big box stores are also responsible for the reach and pace of the outbreak.

Red Fire Farm in Granby hosts an annual summer tomato festival in August, and owner Ryan Voiland said he is committed to holding it this year, despite the spread of late blight to at least one of the tomato fields on his 80-acre organic farm.

If the disease continues to infect his crop, he said, “the economic impact could easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars worth.’’

At least a few nonorganic farms in Massachusetts have also lost part of their tomato crop to the blight, said Hazzard of UMass-Amherst, but farms that are using synthetic fungicides have been more successful at warding off and containing it.

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.

People with shares in Lindentree Farm had mixed reactions to the blight when they stopped by yesterday for their weekly pick-up.

“I’m devastated,’’ said Jill Levine of Lexington, who has had a share in Lindentree for more than a decade and freezes the tomato sauce she makes each summer to use all winter. “Every time I defrosted the tomatoes, it was like the smell of summer,’’ she said.

Others were more philosophical. “We’re supposed to be in concert with nature,’’ said Abby Smith of Sudbury, who just took a share in the farm this year. She gestured at the tables rife with cabbages, greens, fennel, beets, squash, and herbs. “If this is a year when we’re not supposed to be getting tomatoes, then my feeling is it’s time to celebrate all the other wonderful vegetables we have.’’

Venkataraman can be reached at bvenkataraman@globe.com.