This Week in Jewish Farming: Battling the blight

Fri, 08/29/2014 - 11:56am

The first signs of problems with the tomato plants showed up in June, but a combination of inexperience, cockiness and distractions caused me to ignore them.

This week, I paid the price.

Tomatoes are a great money-maker. At the market, they are both our highest-priced and highest-volume crop. We can easily move 50-100 pounds on a Sunday, not including those glorious sungolds. We have also built a reliable wholesale business that, for most of July, was taking an additional 80-100 pounds off us each week. And of course, our CSA members love receiving several pounds of those ripe and beautiful fruits each week.

So when signs of an advanced case of blight turned up on our tomato plants, I was deeply concerned.

Tomato blight refers to a number of species of fungus that infect tomato plants. Spores are carried on the wind or hang out in the soil waiting for the right combination of heat and water to do their thing. First signs are typically lesions on the leaves that, if left unchecked, eventually will fell the entire plant. In places like northern California or the Mediterranean basin where summers are largely dry, tomato blight generally isn’t a problem. In the wet, humid summers of Connecticut, the disease can be a killer.

Our field tomatoes started showing signs of blight soon after transplanting, but we foolishly didn’t react. Last week, with the disease clearly advancing and desperate to know exactly what I was up against, I bagged a few plant samples and drove them up the road to the plant pathology lab at UCONN. The email I received the next day detailed three separate strains of fungus at work.

For the organic grower, the primary defenses against blight are preventive: Keep the air circulation high and the leaf moisture low. Organically approved fungicides are available, but they’re not curative.

The dead plants aren’t coming back. The only recourse at that point is to try to make sure it doesn’t spread.

For us, battling the disease was an uphill climb. By the time we started spraying a copper fungicide, some of our plants already had lost 80 percent of their foliage.

This week it was undeniable: We are losing the fight. Already, our tomato supply has shrunk by half. Within the next two weeks, I expect our field production to be basically over. The greenhouse will probably limp along for a few more weeks.

We’ve been incredibly fortunate not to have lost any major crop so far this season. For a first-year farmer, I consider that a significant accomplishment. Even the loss of the tomatoes isn’t a terrible blow considering we’ve had nearly two months of production already. But the lost revenue hurts a lot — almost as much as the pain of knowing I could have done better.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.

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From the annals of Jewish farming: On Israel’s 10th anniversary in 1958, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson lauded the country’s “outstanding progress” in developing its agricultural potential.

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