Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Perspective on Late Blight

By Nicole Sugerman

Not fixating on late blight is difficult for me this season. As a young farmer riding an upward-trending high of local food enthusiasm and growing popular support, the late blight is a hard reality check. No matter how strong the local foods movement, chemical-free farming is risky work. Seasoned farmers, while struck by the severity of the late blight this season, have seen widespread blights and diseases before. For me and my young-farmer peers, this is our first. Sure, I have lost crops each season I have farmed, to insects, to diseases, to fungi. But this is far scarier, and while I have always known that farming is unpredictable and risky, this really proves it, rather unpleasantly.

Late blight travels fast and does devastating damage. Everyone can, and is, getting it, regardless of the health of our plants or the alertness of our watch for it. I keep fighting urges to whine unproductive accusations of unfairness at the natural forces that made this late blight possible; why did the blight have to be on tomatoes, the single most popular and highest grossing crop for so many small farms?
The story of late blight, though, is not just a story of “natural disasters happen to organic farmers.” Like most ‘natural’ events in the 21st century, this one was shaped and constructed in fascinating ways by human-made systems and set-ups.

Late blight usually does not get the chance to thrive quite so favorably. In the North, it is killed by cold winters, and in the South, the summers are too hot and dry to allow its spread. The story of 2009’s Late Blight is a story of large-scale agriculture; the blight was mainly introduced through transplants that were grown in the South, where the blight lived over the winter in warm greenhouses, then infected plants that were shipped and sold through Loews, Home Depot, K-Mart, and Wal-marts in the northeast. Only by raising transplants on a very large, centralized, scale could the late blight infect so many transplants at once, and only through an agriculture that has normalized the practice of shipping these transplants hundreds of miles could they have then been dispersed to so many different areas much farther North, therefore spreading quickly and efficiently.

The Late Blight tale is also one of large corporate chains versus small, local, nurseries and shops. Corporations’ critics have long noted that high turnover rates, low pay, and little skill-training often results in chain store staffs who have considerably less in-depth subject knowledge than the staffs of the stores’ independently owned counterparts. In a local nursery, plants with late blight would have been quickly identified and destroyed. In a Wal-mart or a Home depot, however, the breadth of products sold is so wide that many of the stores have no collective staff knowledge of plant pathology. Because more and more of the items we buy come from the same few chain stores, stores that often foster low worker wages and high worker turnover, specialized knowledge of many of the goods we purchase is lost. Thus, the late-blighted transplants were sent out to gardeners unnoticed, where the spores proliferated and infected more plants.

The last stage is the only ‘natural’ stage of the late blight saga. The summer of 2009 has been unusually cool and wet, creating a perfect climate for the Late Blight to flourish. This confluence of factors has led to an unfortunately damaging situation for vegetable growers. So far, we are successfully keeping our tomato plants alive by spraying with an organic-approved copper hydroxide fungicide. I hear differing accounts of the long term efficacy of copper sprays, so the best we can do is keep our fingers crossed.

The feeling I most associate with my thoughts of late blight is an overwhelming thankfulness to all of you for agreeing to support the “Henry Got Crops!” Farm in a way that is uncoupled to direct crop sales; while I hate the possibility of disappointing you, the shareholders, with a lessened yield of tomatoes this season, it would be far worse to go out of business in our first year of operation, as we might have if we were relying on strong tomato sales to carry us. And the best news is that for now, there are still plenty of big, juicy, heirloom tomatoes to go around.

Further perspectives on Late Blight:

Dan Barber, New York Times Op-ed. “You Say Tomato, I say Agricultural Disaster”

MK Wyle, Civileats Blog. “Tomato Disappointment”

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