Dan Barber Talks Tomato Blight

Dan Barber, the pro-organics chef and co-owner of the restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, has a lengthy and interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times on the tomato blight that is devastating Northeast farms.

Farms like the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, the snazzy organic mecca created out of the Rockefeller estate in Westchester county. Barber says the farm lost half of its field tomatoes in just three days. But rather than dwell on the losses there, or the culpability of the plant breeding operations that appear to have sent diseased plants to the big-box stores, Barber focuses on what fans of local food like us should be learning from the crisis.

For starters, Barber says, we should be buying plants started locally. For once, I did something right in the garden: I got most of my tomato plants from the Essex County Master Gardeners sale; the rest re-seeded themselves from last year. But local plants didn’t help a former co-worker of mine, who lost all of her Shaker heirloom Large Reds, as well as the bulk of her tomato crop.

Barber also insists that university extension services have to do a better job of alerting growers to problems, particularly the home gardeners who have been an unwitting vector for this year’s disease, and who have lost their grandparents’ knowledge of plants and their pathogens. He wants in-person education and not email alerts, a view that strikes me as impractical on the home gardener level.

More technology, not less, would have helped a lot, I think . Rutgers’ Agricultural Experiment Station posted detailed warnings on the blight as early as July 2 and sponsored a Webinar with lots of information. Trouble was, you had to know about the Ag station’s Web site to find it. The information never made it into the New Jersey papers, which have been raining reporters for the last year.  (The Times‘ first story was July 17.) But imagine what might have happened had the university or gardening groups had effective blogs, social networking sites and email lists to reach home growers. And I stress the word effective: A search for “blight” on the Web site of the Master Gardeners of Essex county astoundingly comes up empty.

Still, I can’t quibble with Barber’s last point: That we’ve got to stop viewing all science as the enemy of good food.

… in our feverish pursuit of what’s old, we can marginalize the development of what could be new.  That includes the development of plants with natural resistance to blight and other diseases — plants like the Mountain Magic tomato, an experimental variety from Cornell that the Stone Barns Center is testing in a field trial. So far there’s been no evidence of disease in these plants, while more than 70 percent of the heirloom varieties of tomatoes have succumbed to the pathogen.

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2 Responses

  1. It is one season — if this were to happen every other season then we should be concerned and take more drastic measures. Furthermore all evidence points to this epidemic happening because of infected plants from the South. The easier course of action is to make sure that plants sold in the Northeast come from the Northeast. Developing new varieties is alright, but certainly not the solution.

    (Disclaimer: I run a small CSA in Jersey and lost all my tomato plants)

  2. Hi Pedro,
    thanks for the comments. As you know, late blight is a soil born pathogen to solanaceous plants (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers etc.) When conditions are favorable it can wreak havoc in a field or crop. This year due to the unintentional inoculation over such a wide area from plants coming from one producer in Alabama ( I think) sending plants to the big box stores in our region, and the dissemination of those plants through out the area to individuals and small growers, coupled with the bizarre weather pattern that has carried the spores throughout the region, late blight is wiping out the tomato crop in the northeast region. So, globalization and the concentration of industry, coupled with the odd weather has conspired to this result. When there were many smaller producers servicing a local clientele, outbreaks of this kind had less opportunity for such a profound impact. Also, a reliance upon chemical intervention to control blights in crops rather than attention to routine practices such as field sanitization to minimize the potential for crop losses brings us to the moment. OF course, it is easy to use this event as a prod to promote a “new” solution. Nothing replaces good management, hard work, and a well balanced living system.

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