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Late Blight Close to Home

July 27, 2009

The first late blight outbreak was confirmed at work today. A whole field of tomato plants, decimated in four days. As I read the email informing the rest of the community, I immediately wanted to go home and check on my plants. When I did get home it was to find that ironically, they look healthier than they’ve ever looked in years past. And so, how much more terrible it will feel if this disease finally hits here.

And from the sound of it, its almost inevitable that it will strike even in my relatively isolated garden. A fungus-like disease caused by Phytophthora infestans, late blight is the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine. (Recent NY Times article here). The unending wet weather this summer – really, it feels like it has rained every day – has created near ideal conditions for late blight. Tomatoes are a high value crop for vegetable growers in Vermont, and it is pretty awful to think about the losses that will come from this. Add to that potential losses from potatoes as well and the impacts are sobering.

I know it’s probably selfish to be so concerned about my garden and the potatoes and tomatoes in it when people are suffering real economic losses from the effects of this disease, but it will break my heart if we lose all our plants. The only preventative measure to take is to spray fungicides, which Ralph and I refuse to do. I suppose I think that if we can’t have healthy plants without fungicides, then we probably just don’t need those plants this year. But the heartbreak will be there all the same. And think: no jars of tomatoes on the basement shelf, no potatoes in our newly built root cellar to last through the winter. What the hell kind of winter is that? Almost worse than a summer with no tomatoes.

And this is what I was considering when I stopped at the market on the way home today and there were local tomatoes there looking round and red and lovely. Usually, I won’t buy tomatoes, even local ones, preferring to wait until they’re ready in our garden. But I paused and considered a summer with no tomatoes at all and bought two big ones to slice on sandwiches.

Both Ralph and I have always been ridiculously proud of the potatoes we grow and grateful for whatever tomatoes we eke out of our short summers. And the joy we get from the potato harvest in the fall, especially, is hard to explain to people who’ve never pulled on the weedy looking potato plant to unearth what feel like little miracles. Really. Miracles. And sadly, it looks like it might just be miraculous if they make it through the season.

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