You Say Tomato…

Cluster of CherriesI found an intriguing Op-Ed article in the New York Times this morning, that was in the NY Times last Saturday. The article focuses on the Late Blight epidemic that is destroying tomato and potato crops in the Northeastern U.S. (Happily, we don’t have to deal with late blight here – just the usual spider mites, etc.)

The article, You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster, was written by a chef for the Stone Barns in New York.

However, there was one paragraph that caught my attention:

According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.

The article goes on to tell about a Cornell University plant pathologist who saw diseased plants at a “large retailer,” and told the manager they needed to get rid of the plants. A week later they were still there!

The author also points out something that I knew, but hadn’t really given a lot of thought to:

There’s another lesson here for the home gardener. When you start a garden, no matter how small, you become part of an agricultural network that binds you to other farmers and gardeners. Airborne late blight spores are a perfect illustration of agriculture’s web-like connections. The tomato plant on the windowsill, the backyard garden and the industrial tomato farm are, to be a bit reductive about it, one very large farm. As we begin to grow more of our own food, we need to reacquaint ourselves with plant pathology and understand that what we grow, and how we grow it, affects everyone else.

Go read the whole article!

About Rebecca

I'm a Horticulture Educator with Sedgwick County Extension, a branch of K-State Research and Extension, located in Wichita, KS. I teach about fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Posted on August 12, 2009, in Around the Garden and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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