Tomato Blight Hits Some Farmers, Spares Others

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Tomatoes were piled high at the New Morning Farm stand at the Dupont Circle farmers market. Just as they should be in mid-August. But for Jim Crawford, this is not the peak of tomato season; it is quite possibly the end. The late blight fungus has invaded his organic tomato fields, which generate 20 percent of the farm's revenue.

"We've been doing this for 40 years. This is the biggest financial hit we've ever had," said Crawford, whose farm is in south-central Pennsylvania. "It's worse than hurricanes, floods or late frosts."

Tomato crops throughout the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast have been savaged by late blight, the disease responsible for the 1840s Irish potato famine. A cold, wet June helped the fungus, which is not harmful to humans, spread through commercial fields and backyard gardens. Organic farmers such as Crawford, who have few weapons against the disease, have been hardest hit.

That's the bad news. The good news is that there will still be plenty of local tomatoes this season. Many Maryland and Virginia farmers say they expect good crops. About 20 percent of Maryland growers have reported some late blight in their fields, said Gerald Brust, an integrated pest management specialist at the University of Maryland. But thanks to the hot, dry July, state outreach and intense media coverage, most growers were able to act quickly and control the fungus with protective sprays. The same is true on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where many commercial tomato growers are based.

Though Pennsylvania growers experienced the coolest and rainiest weather in the region, and with it the most severe losses, those who have been able to spray also expect to bring tomatoes to market.

"Consumers won't see any difference," said Mark Toigo of Shippensburg, Pa.-based Toigo Orchards. His farm has lost as much as 25 percent of its 80,000 tomato plants, but, Toigo says, "we still have an awful lot of good stuff."

Farmers have different opinions about which tomatoes are most vulnerable to the blight. New Morning Farm's Crawford says heirlooms, old varieties that predate World War II, have been more resilient. Toigo and Jim Breger of Anchor Nursery in Galena, Md., say heirlooms have been more susceptible.

Losing heirlooms is a double whammy for a grower's bottom line. Heirloom tomatoes sell for between $3 and $4 per pound, compared with about $2 for commercial hybrids.

In an average year, tomato prices might fall at the end of summer. But the loss of some crops and the fear of losing more means prices probably will stay steady, growers said.

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