Tomato Blight Spreading

  • The blight hitting tomatoes is actually the same blight responsible for the Irish potato famine in the mid-19 century. (Photo by T. A. Zitter, courtesy of Cornell University)

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:

Transcript

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.

Related Links

Romancing the American Chestnut

  • American chestnuts (left) are smaller than Chinese and European chestnuts. The Chinese and European varieties are also resistant to the blight, making the imports more desirable to growers. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Food is always a big part of the holidays. But one
traditional food has – for the most part – disappeared from American tables. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

Food is always a big part of the holidays. But one traditional food has – for the most part – disapeared from American tables. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


(Sound of Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasing on an open fire…”)


That old chestnut of a song romanticizes roasting chestnuts as a part of the holidays. But a lot of us have never even seen chestnuts, let alone roasted them on an open fire. Chestnuts used to be a major part of the Eastern hardwood forest. There were millions of them. In fact, 25 percent of all the mature trees were chestnuts. But a blight, imported with some Chinese chestnut trees, slowly wiped out the American chestnuts. Now, they’re gone.


Well… almost. Much of the root stock is still alive. Sprouts grow until the blight knocks them back again. A blight only hurts the standing tree where it branches out.


And, in a few isolated pockets in the Midwest, the blight hasn’t reached the trees. A few American chestnuts are alive and growing and some of them are free of the blight. At Nash Nursuries in central Michigan, owner Bill Nash is guiding us through a rare sight… a grove of American chestnuts.


“These are 20 years old and as you can see, they’re fairly good sized. The American chestnut is quite a rapid growing tree. It’s well-suited for our climate, so it doesn’t have any of the problems that some of the hybrids do as far as growing and cultural care you have to take care of them. The Americans, you get them started and they’re pretty much on their own.”


In a few places in Michigan and Wisconsin there are small groves of chestnuts. They’re prized trees. They’re great for shade. The hardwood is rot resistant and makes great furniture and fence posts. And the chestnuts are eaten by humans and wildlife alike. Bill Nash says the tree will be popular again if it ever overcomes the blight that’s hit it so hard.


“The American chestnut will make another big comeback in this country as a yard tree, as a timber tree, as a wildlife tree.”


That part about a wildlife tree is more important than just worrying about the squirrels and bunnies. Chestnuts were an important food source for all kinds of animals.


Andrew Jarosz is a plant biologist at Michigan State University. He says the loss of chestnuts has been hard on wildlife populations.


“Chestnuts shed nuts in a more regular pattern than oaks, which will have what are called mast years – where they’ll have major crops, massive crops one year and very small crops in other years – which means it’s either feast or famine if you’re depending on oaks.”


Since the blight first began hitting American chestnuts about a century ago, researchers have been looking into all kinds of ways to stop it. One way is to cross it with the Chinese chestnut which has a couple of genes that resist the blight. But it takes a long time to breed out the Chinese characteristics from the American chestnuts and still keep the resistant genes.


Another approach is genetic manipulation. Genetically modifying the American chestnut tree to make it disease resistant. Again, work is underway, but it takes a long time. And even after success, it’s likely some people won’t like the idea of releasing a genetically modified organism into the wild.


The final approach worked in Europe when the blight hit there. It seems there’s a naturally occuring virus that kills the blight. It spread naturally in Europe. There are a few groves in Michigan that have naturally acquired the virus and it’s working to keep the blight at bay. Andrew Jarosz is working on the research. He says the trick is figuring out how to get the virus to spread to other trees short of manually spreading it on cankers infected by the blight.


“If we’re literally talking about millions of trees across probably, you know, the eastern third of the country, we obviously can’t treat every canker on every tree. And we need to be able to figure out a way to deploy the virus in a way that it can spread.”


Even with all that hopeful research, it’ll be ten years at least before some practical solutions end up in the forests, and Jarosz believes a couple of centuries before the American chestnut holds the place it once did in the forests.


Bill Nash knows it’ll be a while before there are major changes, but he is optimistic about the American chestnut.


“Oh, I would think the tree has a bright future. There’s enough people working on that, enough programs going on now… So, I would suspect that in the not-too-distant future we should have some of this progress made. You know, Robert Frost in his poem predicted the comeback of the American chestnut, that something would arise to offset that blight. And we’re starting to see that.”


Frost put it this way: “Will the blight end the chestnut? The farmers rather guess not, It keeps smoldering at the roots And sending up new shoots Till another parasite Shall come to end the blight.”


Seems Frost was an optimist too.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Pitfalls of Population Growth

A recent United Nations report indicates the earth’s population has doubled since 1960. The report says the result of that growth is that humans are altering the planet on an unprecedented scale. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the details:

Transcript

A recent United Nations report indicates the earth’s population has doubled since 1960. The report says the result of that growth is that humans are altering the planet on an unprecedented scale. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.


In its report, the United Nations Population Fund said that with six-point-one billion people on earth, humans are using more resources than ever before. The report indicates rising affluence and consumption along with the growing population are combining to cause extensive environmental damage. The report explains that increasing population itself does not mean increasing damage to the environment. But to be sustainable where the population is growing fastest, Asia and Africa, those regions must have better access to outside resources and technology to better manage their own natural resources, and the political will to use them responsibly. Without the resources and political will, the report indicates that growing populations in undeveloped areas tend to strip the ground clear of natural resources as well as damage the environment and induce famine and disease. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.