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The blight hitting tomatoes is the same blight responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19 century.  (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)
The blight hitting tomatoes is the same blight responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19 century. (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)

Tomato blight spreading

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One of the quintessential tastes of late summer, a juicy, perfectly ripe garden tomato, is hard to come by this year. This year a tomato blight swept across the Northeast and it's moving into Midwestern gardens and farms. Julie Grant reports.

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Transcript: Julie Grant, August 26, 2009

If you've been waiting all season for that quintessential taste of summer – a juicy, ripe tomato from the garden - you might be disappointed. This year a tomato blight has swept across the Northeast and is moving into Midwestern gardens and farms. Julie Grant reports:

Walk around this outdoor farm market in Cleveland and just say the words ‘tomato blight’ – nearly anyone in earshot has a story to tell.

Susan Myers says her home garden has given over to what she thinks is late blight.

“But it’s pretty serious. I mean, it’s like wiping out everything. I have lots of tomatoes and all the leaves are dropping. I’ve never, ever had that before.”

It doesn’t look like the farmers here are having trouble with tomato blight. Most tables are piled high with bright reds and yellows.

Skip Conant has a beautiful display of heirloom tomatoes – but he’s not sure how many more weeks he’ll have fruit to offer.

Conant: “We definitely have tomato blight. It’s been a cool, wet spring, so, yeah. There’s a fair amount tomato blight.”

Grant: “What does it look like?”

Conant: “You’ll see a yellowing and curling on the leaves and then the stem will turn brown. The plant will become a very brown. Die from basically the inside out or the bottom up.”

It’s hard to tell yet if these Midwestern growers are starting to see the same blight that decimated the northeast tomatoes.

Bill Fry is a plant pathologist at Cornell University. He’s studied late blight for 35 years. Fry says it looks like irregular shaped black spots, and can appear on the leaves or the fruit. It can destroy an entire crop in just a few days.

This is the same blight responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19 century. Growers have seen late blight since then. But Fry says, not at these epidemic proportions.

“The fact that it’s just everywhere is, I think, is the major difference from previous years.”

This wasn’t the first cool, wet spring on record. So, why has the blight so bad this year?

It’s kind of ironic. Fry and his colleagues have been studying the problem and think it’s probably because so many people are gardening. Millions more than just last year. And lots of those people bought tomato plants at stores like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

“Infected plants were sold throughout the northeast in the box stores. They were transplanted to home gardens and from there the pathogen disbursed to other home gardens, to conventional and organic farms.”

Fry says you might not even notice at the supermarket. Commercial tomato growers spray lots of fungicide to keep away the blight. But organic tomatoes are getting harder to find.

But chefs and tomato lovers who’ve waited all season for those locally-grown heirloom - and especially organic - tomatoes aren’t finding what they want in markets in the northeast.

Back at the Cleveland market, chef and restaurant owner Karen Small has been waiting for tomato season – and it finally hit. She depends on this market for her produce and stops at just about every stand.

But as Small hears farmer after farmer describe what they think is late blight – she’s worried about the weeks to come.

“We’re accustomed to having tomatoes well into September, and maybe that’s not going to happen this year.”

Small plans to go home and rip out the tomato plants in her home garden – after hearing late blight described so many times, she’s pretty sure her tomatoes are infected.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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