Monday, August 22, 2011

Boom and Bust of Tomatoes

I said it this week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, but I did. I said I hate growing tomatoes. Of course this isn’t true across the board, as long as I am a farmer I will probably grow tomatoes. But this week…I hate growing tomatoes. Monday morning my coworkers and I walked around the field like usual to make a plan for the week. We walked past the tomatoes and I thought they looked particularly bad. They had been suffering a little from late trellising, but they seemed to look worse. I looked closer. This was not just damage from trellising. There were brown dots, and yellow spots, and many, many, dead, brown leaves. It’s hit: a tomato disease. We weren’t sure at first which of the many diseases had struck, but it was clear, there was some fast deterioration going on. Since Monday I’ve done some research, and my best guess is that we have both Fusarium Wilt and Septoria Leaf Spot. One strikes from the inside out, the other strikes from the outside in. Both stay in your soil for multiple years. While I’m still looking, I haven’t found an organic control for Fusarium. Penn State Extension recommends for organic growers to use a copper fungicide to slow down (but not stop) Septoria. Tomatoes are delicious, beautiful, versatile vegetables that everyone loves. They also are completely dependent on a tremendous amount of human aid to grow and survive. They require staking and trellising, otherwise they flop on the ground and the fruit rots and the plants are even more susceptible to disease from the soil. They require pruning to create air circulation that also helps prevent disease, and creates larger fruit. And they grow incredibly fast, so neither trellising nor pruning are one-time events, they must be repeated throughout the season as they grow. They also have the capability to sprout roots from any part of their stem or branches, so if they do lie on the ground, they will start rooting in, making them even more sensitive to being forced upright again. If it rains or is there is dew on their leaves you can’t touch them because the water makes them an even more inviting place for disease which could travel on you, from one plant to another. You need to constantly be watching for any sign of disease on a leaf or fruit that you then need to remove in hopes of stopping it from spreading to another. In short, if you look at them wrong they fall over and die. Every year on this farm I’ve had trouble with tomatoes and identified some frightening disease at a point in the season that seems unfairly early. “After all this work I’ve put into you, you are going to shrivel up and die on me? In AUGUST?!” I was going to spray copper and fertilizer on the tomatoes today (Saturday), but there is rain in the forecast and I can’t afford the time or the resources to spray them if it will be washed off that quickly. Looking at the forecast, Monday is another option. So today, myself and two high school interns spent cumulatively 11 hours pruning off diseased leaves and branches. We got about one a half of our 8 affected rows finished. I’m not quite sure where I’ll find the remaining 71.5 hours to tend to the rest. If I did nothing else for the entire 6-day workweek that would completely fill my average weekly hours. I think at this point it’s appropriate to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of tomatoes. We silly humans bend over backwards for these vines that have us wrapped around their tendrils. All for $4.00 a lb (at your highest paying market). On a brighter note, we can celebrate the fact that this year we had tomatoes over a month earlier than last year, thanks to our hoop house. Also, harvests have been on average three times larger than last year as well. And this is about the same time as last year that our tomatoes started dying, so all in all, it’s been a good year! I feel like this is one of those very tough decisions farmers have to make about time and energy input versus potential output (or lack thereof). I’m considering ripping out the most diseased section in an effort to save the ones that are less affected at this point. So if anyone wants to join our emergency tomato triage team, give me a call. Seriously (802-274-4503).

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