By Kathryn G. Menu
This year, farmer David Falkowski was poised to harvest a banner tomato crop. Starting his seedlings early, fertilizing the crops with manure from chickens on his Bridgehampton spread, by early summer the plants were dripping in green fruit, promising an abundance to sell at farmers’ markets across the East End.
“You should have seen these plants,” said Falkowski this week. “They were beautiful. We were way ahead of the game.”
But by July 4 weekend, Falkowski was cutting almost the entire crop down, at the plants’ base, and packing them carefully into black plastic bags, leaving the lot to roast in the sun and kill the pathogen that wiped out almost 90 percent of his tomato crop.
“I removed about 2,000 plants,” he said.
Late blight, which primarily affects tomato and potato crops, was the culprit and the fungus-like pathogen has spread to farms and gardens across the East End, according to Dr. Meg McGrath, a professor of plant pathology at Cornell University.
Late blight is a destructive and infectious disease caused by a fungal-like pathogen, phytophthora infestans. It can only survive on living plant tissue and thrives in cloudy, wet weather, its spores traveling across regions on the wind, traveling particularly large distances during storms.
To prevent late blight, some farms employ fungicides, while organic farmers generally rely on spraying copper or horsetail to keep fungus at bay, although spraying does not preclude a crop from infection.
According to Dr. McGrath, the late blight this year has been identified early in the growing season, giving it more time to spread and infect farms and gardens that now remain late blight free. That is why, she said, it is critical to inform not just farmers, but also people who maintain vegetable gardens at their homes, about the pathogen and just how seriously it can affect an agricultural economy.
“It’s amazing to see how quickly late blight can spread if it is not managed carefully, or correctly,” said Dr. McGrath.
In 2009, the region also experienced an outbreak of late blight, although not as widespread as this year’s outbreak. The source of the outbreak was later tracked to a truck carrying infected plants to the northeast from the south.
Dr. McGrath said this year’s late blight likely began in Sagaponack in late May to early June, but was not identified until June 24, when the pathogen already had time to disperse and infect other tomato and plant crops in neighboring farms and gardens like Falkowski’s.
Dr. McGrath’s team at Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural and Extension Center in Riverhead were able to look at the genetics of the late blight and fingerprint it. She said their research showed this was a new late blight strain on the East End, one seen in Florida and in western Wisconsin. Tracking where commercial farmers generally purchase their seeds, when not using seeds saved from the previous year’s crop, Dr. McGrath said the culprit was likely at a single residence in Sagaponack.
“We are about 99-percent sure that this started in a home garden,” she said. “The impact one garden can have is staggering, isn’t it?”
While not all farms on the East End have experienced the late blight, and some have be spared with just small portions of their crop affected, according to McGrath as of July 8, the pathogen was fairly widespread across Long Island and was the largest outbreak of late blight in the United States so far this year.
On the East End, McGrath said there have been reports of blight from Eastport through Riverhead to Sagaponack, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and even in East Hampton. The North Fork, through Southold, has also had reports of late blight.
She added that she expects the late blight could spread to New England next.
Falkowski appears to have been one of the South Fork farmers hit the hardest. Spying the late blight on just a few plants at first, Falkowski said within four days time he knew he needed to cut the crop down, instead of trying to save it, mostly out of respect for neighboring farmers’ trying to make a way of life similar to his.
“If you see it on one or two plants, fine, but otherwise the responsible thing is to remove the whole field,” said Falkowski. “Otherwise you are just putting pressure on other farmers.”
Falkowski said next year he plans to implement a horsetail program similar to the programs used at organic farms like Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett and Sunset Beach Farm in North Haven. Horsetail, or equisetaceae, leaves are dried and made into a tea, which when sprayed on plants is a natural fungicide.
“But it isn’t just what I do on my farm that matters,” he added. “It is what we all do as a community to prevent another outbreak of this disease. Your neighbor’s problems, are your problems.”
As Scott Chaskey, the director and farmer at the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm notes, who ends up getting late blight when an outbreak occurs comes down to luck and the turn of a breeze.
The veteran organic farmer literally winces when the words “late blight” are uttered. Quail Hill was impacted by the 2009 outbreak, pulling 8,000 tomato plants from the ground. The farm remains late blight free as of now, rows of tomatoes sporting spore-free fruit just days from being ripe enough to pick.
Despite his “luck,” Chaskey recognizes continued reoccurrence of late blight could have a significant impact on local farmers. In an effort to stave off late blight, he does spray horsetail and inspects the tomato plants daily.
Chaskey noted this year he has planted 30 varieties of tomatoes from saved seeds from previous Quail Hill crops. Those varieties have already thrived in Amagansett, are used to the soil and more likely to resist disease, he noted.
“It just depends which way the wind is blowing,” he said.
Farmer Karin Bellemare of the North Haven-based Sunset Beach Farm feared the farm’s tomato crops may have contracted late blight earlier this summer.
She and partner Jon Wagner immediately began working with Dr. McGrath’s team, aware that farms in Sagaponack, Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor, including the small Estia’s Little Kitchen garden, had already reported cases of late blight. Cornell researchers eventually determined the heirloom tomatoes had been impacted by a fungus, but not late blight, and the disease would not spread to other farms.
Tomatoes, said Bellemare, are one of her farm’s biggest crops. An outbreak similar to Falkowski’s would have had a devastating effect, she said.
Regina Whitley, a farmer who plants on an acre at the East End Community Organic Farm in East Hampton was not so lucky. While her stand at the Route 27 Farmers’ Market in Amagansett Wednesday morning boasted some succulent looking tomatoes, she said she has had late blight on her acreage. Whitley has started spraying copper on her plants, but said she will have no idea how badly she will be affected by the late blight.
“But we are small,” said Whitley. “I feel bad for the bigger farmers that have been hit.”
For Falkowski, whose organic mushroom varieties put him on the map as a sought after East End farmer, the blight has not devastated his operation, but has made him have to rethink plans for next year, like replacing a farm truck with 170,000 miles on it.
“Unless I can find that money somewhere else, I am going to have to make some different plans,” he said. “But that’s what we do as farmers. We find new ways to solve problems.”