Archive for the ‘Late Blight’ Category

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Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently launched a new initiative called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (USDA, 2009).  The slogan of the program is “Every family needs a farmer; do you know yours?”  The irony of this “new” initiative is that one hundred years ago, before the USDA industrialized agriculture through the “Green Revolution,” almost every family knew their farmer and knew their food.  One half of the nation’s population resided on farms, and most farms grew the majority of their own food, as well as their neighbors’ food.  In this not-so-distant past, most people knew exactly where their food came from:  the soil, sun, water, and air that surrounded them; and the labor of their friends, family, neighbors, and work animals.  Family and neighbors were tied together by a common resource base and frequently shared meals.  Entire communities worked together to pull in the season’s harvest, neighbors toiling side-by-side in the fields, their future and prosperity bound together by a shared dependence on the bounty and vagaries of Mother Nature.

One hundred years ago, solidarity was a way of life in America.  Farms and their surrounding communities engaged in a de facto form of shared risk and shared rewards.  Farms depended on their community to assist with planting and harvesting.  Communities in turn relied upon their local farms to provide the food they needed to survive the winter.  When farms suffered crop losses due to severe weather or pest outbreaks, the entire community rallied to support them.  When farms experienced bumper crops, the neighborhood was invited to participate in the ensuing feasts.  Before the advent of the highway system and long distance transportation of food from massive industrial farms, every farm was in essence a community supported farm.


Shared Risk, Shared Rewards

Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a form of shared risk and shared rewards.  By investing in a CSA share, consumers provide a form of insurance and protection against catastrophic losses, thereby helping to keep small farmers in business even during the most difficult growing seasons.  Farming is inherently a challenging and unpredictable profession; Mother Nature may some years deliver ideal weather, minimal pests and diseases, and bountiful harvests, but in other years can devastate entire crops with pest and disease outbreaks, hailstorms, and floods or droughts.  During good years, a CSA farm shares its profits with CSA members in the form of large quantities of fresh produce at below market prices.  The farm makes less money from a CSA than from market sales during these years, but is provided the financial security of receiving CSA payments at the beginning of the season, while purchasing seeds, animal feed, equipment, and other necessary supplies.  In poor years, CSA members help the farmer carry the burden of the crop losses experienced by receiving smaller shares and perhaps paying higher than the average market price for their produce.  By assuming this risk, the CSA members help keep farmers afloat and maintain the farm’s financial solvency by providing a source of income even when market sales may be low.  Averaged over a number of years, CSA members generally receive more produce for lower prices than consumers at farmers markets, and CSA farmers have the security of a stable source of income even during calamitous growing seasons that might bankrupt other small producers.


Distant Threats

Unfortunately, the 2009 growing season was neither easy nor productive for farmers in Maine.  The weather was unusually cool and cloudy, with record high precipitation, providing optimal conditions for disease and pest outbreaks and less than ideal growing conditions for many plants.  In particular, late blight struck farms and home gardens in Maine in an unprecedented epidemic, affecting the region months earlier than normal.  The blight epidemic devastated organic tomato and potato crops throughout the state, infecting an estimated 90% of organic tomato plantings and 50% of organic potatoes (Dill, 2010 and Sideman, 2010).  Ironically, the late blight fungus was introduced to Maine by a Georgia-based plant nursery, Bonnie Plants, which ships their products nationwide to big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and WalMart (Lambert and Johnson, 2009).  The fact that a plant nursery located thousands of miles away was the source of economic hardship for countless Maine organic farmers demonstrates the dangers inherent in an industrialized food system that relies on transporting plants thousands of miles, along with any diseases or pests they may carry.  While our small, local farms are working hard to protect our state’s food security and preserve our environment by producing healthy, organic food, large factory farms from other states have threatened our agricultural economy and endangered our food security.


Unite for Local Food Security

Ultimately, if we are concerned about food security for our children and grandchildren’s futures, we must take responsibility as a local community for feeding one another and ourselves.  The industrial agriculture system that produces the vast majority of our nation’s food has been implicated in repeated and fatal incidences of food contamination, and is one of the leading causes of water pollution in lakes, rivers, and coastal zones across the United States (U.S. EPA, 2010).  This agricultural system is also responsible for approximately 19 percent of our economy’s fossil fuel consumption and 37 percent of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, producing only one calorie of food energy for every 10 calories of fossil fuel energy used (Pollan, 2008).  As citizens concerned about the health of our families, the preservation of our environment and natural resources, and the consequences of a finite supply of fossil fuels, together we can achieve food security and improve our community by supporting the small, organic farmers who are working to redefine American agriculture.

However, these small family farmers need our help.  They are constantly in competition with factory farms that can produce food for far less money due to the use of cheap labor and federal taxpayer subsidies and are covered against catastrophic losses by large insurance companies.  To insure themselves against irreparable losses during tough years, small farmers rely upon the assistance and support of their consumers, many of whom they interact with directly and know on a personal basis.  By knowing our farmer and investing in their future, we can also know our food:  where it comes from, how it is grown, and the manner in which its production sustains our health, protects our environment, and ensures the vitality of our future.  We must continue to demand and expect these essential goods and services from our small, local farmers.  But we must also stand in solidarity with our farmers when the capriciousness of Mother Nature or the damages wrought by factory farms threatens their livelihood.  As you are considering whether to renew your CSA membership this year, or perhaps enroll as a first-time member, know that the farmers you support are growing food for your health, your environment, and your family.  As Thomas Jefferson once said, “While the farmer holds the title to the land, actually it belongs to all the people because civilization itself rests upon the soil.”  Claim your shared ownership of this common resource by supporting your local farm and investing in their CSA.



Dill, Jim.  21 January 2010.  “Late Blight:  What Happened in 2009.”  25th Annual Maine Potato Conference.  Caribou, Maine. http://www.umaine.edu/umext/potatoprogram/Lambert, Dave and Steve Johnson.  03 August 2009.  Quoted in “Maine Extension Weights in on Late Blight.”  Greenhouse Grower. http://www.greenhousegrower.com/news/?storyid=2488Pollan, Michael.  12 October 2008.  “Farmer in Chief.”  The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12policy-t.htmlSideman, Eric.  Spring 2010.  “Late Blight Again?  It’s Up to Us.”  The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener. Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  Volume 37, Number 1.  Page 27. http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Spring2010/LateBlight/tabid/1555/Default.aspxUSDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture).  2009.  “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” http://www.usda.gov/knowyourfarmer U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).  13 January 2010.  “Managing Nonpoint Source Pollution from Agriculture.” http://www.epa.gov/nps/facts/point6.htm


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Dear Rep. McCabe,

I am writing to you as a constituent who is an organic farmer and a scientist, and very concerned about the health of our state’s agricultural economy and home gardens.  I was informed that you are the sponsor of HP 1135, LD 1607, a bill that would ban the movement of firewood across state lines in Maine in order to prevent the spread of invasive insects.  First, allow me to express my gratitude to you for sponsoring this important legislation.  As a former research ecologist, I am well aware of the disastrous effects that invasive species can have upon natural ecosystems and resource-based economies.

I am curious whether it might be possible to draft a similar bill for the State of Maine to prohibit the importing of garden plants and seedlings from out-of-state.  Such legislation would help protect Maine farms and gardens against invasive pests and diseases.  As you may know, late blight struck farms and home gardens this year in the Northeastern United States in an unprecedented epidemic.  The blight epidemic devastated organic tomato and potato crops throughout the State of Maine, infecting an estimated 90% of tomato plantings and 50% of potatoes (Eric Sideman, MOFGA, personal communication). The late blight fungus was introduced to Maine by a Georgia-based plant nursery, Bonnie Plants, which ships their products nationwide to big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and WalMart.

For more details about how Bonnie Plants spread late blight throughout the Northeastern U.S., please see:


For more information about how the epidemic affected our own farm, please see:


Please let me know if you think such legislation might be possible, and how I might go about assisting with the process of drafting it.

Thank you.
Thom Young

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Were Your Tomatoes or Potatoes Destroyed by Late Blight in 2009?

Help Stop Plant Diseases from Spreading!

Pledge to Boycott Non-Local Seedling Sources

Late blight struck farms and home gardens during the 2009 growing season in Maine in an unprecedented epidemic.  The blight epidemic devastated organic tomato and potato crops throughout the state, infecting an estimated 90% of organic tomato plantings and 50% of organic potatoes (Dill, 2010 and Sideman, 2010).

The late blight fungus was introduced to the Northeastern United States in 2009 by a Georgia-based plant nursery, Bonnie Plants, that ships their products nationwide to big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, and WalMart (Lambert and Johnson, 2009).  Please help to protect our region’s agricultural heritage:  boycott non-local seedling sources and commit to buying only locally grown seedlings, or starting your own seeds, in order to preserve our gardens and farms.

Since late blight cannot survive frosts, it only overwinters in southern Florida and does not naturally spread to Maine until the end of the growing season, typically in late September or October.  However, by shipping contaminated plants from Georgia in spring, Bonnie Plants spread the infection to Maine several months earlier than usual, in June and July (Dill, 2010).  The record high precipitation and overcast conditions we experienced during the 2009 growing season provided an ideal environment for the fungus to then quickly spread and infect gardens and farms throughout the state.

A statewide ban on aerial spraying of fungicides was temporarily lifted in 2009 in order to protect conventional potato farms, with unknown health and environmental consequences.  Some organic farms prevented or mitigated blight infections through frequent and regular applications of copper and peroxide sprays.  However, many organic farms that refused to spray chemicals suffered heavy crop losses.

Our state’s frigid winters normally provide important barriers to the spread of many agricultural diseases and pests.  But when we purchase garden seedlings and other contaminated plants from sources thousands of miles away, we circumvent these natural disease and pest dispersal barriers.  As the 2009 late blight epidemic has proven, the results can be devastating.

A regional commitment to support local plant nurseries will help to prevent another catastrophic disease or pest infestation in the future.  Please join us as we boycott the big box stores and nurseries that distribute and market plants grown thousands of miles away, destabilizing our local, organic agricultural heritage and threatening the future of our food security.  Help us support our local economy and protect our state’s farmers by pledging to only purchase plants from local sources.

I, (First and Last Name), pledge to purchase garden seedlings and other plants only from local nurseries that grow the plants within my own state or agricultural climate zone.  I pledge to boycott any nurseries that distribute their products nationwide.  I commit to patronize local farmers and plant nurseries in lieu of big box nurseries in order to prevent the spread of agricultural pests and diseases, to help ensure greater food security, and to support our local economies and communities.


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This has been a really tough gardening season – no news to anyone!
With cool temps and over 20” of rain, the scene was set for disease. When big box stores sold plants pre-infected with late blight, the conditions were just right. As a result, the blight popped up all over
New England and as far south as Maryland – all at once. There was a
fast spread and only pockets of gardens were spared. As many of you know, lots of folks lost their tomato and potato crops.

LATE BLIGHT information: Phytophthora infestans
affects both potato and tomato plants. The blight strain in Maine this year is the same as the blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine.
Late blight is a systemic infection. When it reaches maturity it
releases wind borne spores. The spores can travel as far as 30 miles.

This fall garden clean up is essential.
Tomato plants need to be removed from the garden and taken to the dump. The blight will not live over the winter unless there is live tissue. For this reason it is not wise to compost potentially infected plants.

In 2010 buy your tomato starts from a local garden center or from folks you know, or start your own tomato seedlings. Locally grown tomato plants cannot be pre-infected.  Seeds saved from tomato plants grown this year also cannot be infected as the blight fungus cannot survive on properly saved seeds.

Potatoes will live over the winter in your garden. “The one you missed” will come back next spring as a volunteer, and could potentially infect your garden (and your neighbors’) again.

Careful potato harvesting this fall will help prevent continuing infection. Cut off all potato foliage, both dry and green, and take it to the dump. Leave the spuds in the ground for a good two weeks. Removing the foliage means you will not dig your potatoes and drag them through potentially infected foliage. DIG AS COMPLETELY AS POSSIBLE. Put your crop out in a single layer, in a warm, dark, and dry area to cure. If any potatoes are infected they will show it at this point rather than by infecting your entire crop in storage.

In 2010 do not use saved potatoes as planting stock. Buy new, certified disease free planting stock. Folks selling seed potatoes should be able to show that their seed is certified.

References: http://www.nofasummerconference.org/lateblight.html
Amy LeBlanc, Master Gardener, Whitehill Farm, 778-2685

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A late blight infestation recently destroyed our entire tomato crop (approx. 300 row feet) and may have compromised our potatoes (350 row feet), as well as that of many other home gardens across New England. In a matter of merely two or three days, our tomatoes went from looking healthy, green, robust and vibrant, with many green fruits growing on their vines, to brown, wilted, sickly vines with few green leaves and rotting spots on most of the fruit.  The change was so rapid and dramatic we could barely believe our eyes.

Our potatoes had shown signs of late blight several days prior; the diagnosis was confirmed by a local plant pathology lab at U. Maine.  Before noticing the infection spreading to the tomatoes, we had already cut all the potato plants from their roots, leaving their tubers in the ground to dry and harvest later.

As for the tomatoes, we managed to salvage half a crate of the healthiest unripe tomatoes and make a gallon of relish, and freeze two gallons of green tomatoes.  But it was utterly depressing to have to pull several hundred row feet of potatoes and tomatoes after weeks of labor saving seeds, starting seeds, coddling seedlings in our nursery, administering compost tea, transplanting out to the garden, mulching, trellising, pruning, etc.  etc.

The late blight fungus was introduced here by a Georgia-based plant nursery, Bonnie Plants, that ships their products nationwide to big box stores like Home Depot, Lowe’s, WalMart, etc.  See http://www.greenhousegrower.com/news/?storyid=2488

We’re certainly frustrated that we lost our entire tomato crop, and our potato crop has been compromised (we have to harvest the tubers super early after culling the plants last week, and they may not store well). They were collectively our two largest crops, comprising about 20% of our garden space. Every garden we have seen in the area has experienced the same problem, regardless of whether they started their own seeds in home nurseries (like we did) or bought their seedlings from big box nurseries, like the one in question. It is doubly frustrating that the big box nursery at fault (Bonnie Plants) that sold the infected plants nationwide has yet to admit any wrongdoing, despite all evidence to the contrary.

When we initially found out that late blight (which caused the Irish potato famine) was spreading to New England, we looked into the possibility of certified organic control measures, but the fungicides we researched were known to be harmful to humans and to aquatic wildlife. Practically every farm and garden in Maine is upstream of a nearby watershed or wetland, so this would not have been practical or ethical from an environmental standpoint. I’ve since discovered a product called OxiDate, which is essentially stable hydrogen peroxide, that is environmentally safe, but I think you need to be a commercial grower to purchase it.

The bigger concern, however, is that this situation provides a prime example of the manner in which the long-distance transportation of food commodities can compromise local food security by circumventing natural dispersal boundaries of pests and diseases. Late blight does not survive frosts as it requires live plant material in the nightshade family to persist. Therefore, it can only overwinter in southern Florida. The spores are wind-dispersed and can only travel about 10 miles per day under normal wind and host plant regimes. Therefore, in typical years, we don’t see late blight this far north until late September or October (hence the name), well after the potato harvest. However, by shipping contaminated plants from Georgia in spring, the big box nursery spread the infection to New England several months earlier than usual, long before potato tubers could reach their peak abundance and size and before most home gardens’ tomatoes could set fruit and ripen (the exception are greenhouse growers who could manage an early tomato crop prior to the disease’s establishment). The record high precipitation and overcast conditions we experienced this summer provided an ideal environment for the fungus to then quickly spread and infect gardens and farms throughout the region.

I suppose this is analogous in some ways to the manner human diseases are spread globally through plane travel (e.g., H1N1 influenza epidemic) and, prior to that, the way that Europeans introduced new pathogens to the native people of the Americas during their exploration and subsequent colonization. In the context of the globalization of previously localized or regional food diseases (plant pathogens), it becomes very difficult for local food and farming cultures to anticipate and adapt to these changes and ensure their viability. When subjected to additional stressors, such as the backdrop of climate change, plants become even more susceptible to the new diseases introduced (I heard there were record high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest recently, and it is possible our record rainfall in New England is linked to climate change as well, although only time will tell). Industrialized agriculture and the long-distance transportation of food is already a top contributor to climate change, responsible for one-third of our nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. By circumventing natural pathogen dispersal barriers, it may also prove to be a leading contributor to disease outbreaks on farms, of which this late blight outbreak is certainly an example.

Ultimately, I hope this will serve as just another nail in the coffin for long-distance food and industrial agriculture by bolstering support for local, sustainable food economies and small, community farms and plant nurseries. In the face of climate change and impending peak oil, we will inevitably be forced in this direction due to purely economic factors, barring a switch to coal-based energy. Once oil climbs into the hundreds of dollars per barrel price range again, it may no longer make economic sense to use 10 times as many calories of fossil fuel energy to grow and transport food from industrial farms than the actual caloric energy value you gain by eating the food. In the end, it will simply be a matter of efficiency and food security that I think will drive us to realize the importance of eating locally, rather than buying our food and seedlings from thousands of miles away.

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