Amy Hepworth went long tomatoes this year. A farmer in Milton, New York, Hepworth brought new land into production and invested heavily in the crop hoping the effort would help pay for the farm and, in part, help stimulate the local economy. Then came late blight.

Hepworth and her partner Gerry Greco detailed their battle with the air-born fungus when the members of Hepworth’s community supported agriculture (CSA) from Sixth Street Community Center in New York City visited Hepworth Farms two weeks ago. The visit upstate was our first in the long relationship with the organic farm, and as Hepworth and Greco plunged into a discussion on tomato pathology, it seemed the farmers were as excited about the trip as we were. Read more

Two weeks ago, I noticed that two of my tomato plants had late blight. I was up on the roof, weeding, pulling off yellowing leaves from all the excess rain, and harvesting some early tomatoes when I noticed leaves with yellow and brown spots on them. I’d read the article in the New York Times about the blight, and so I sent out the photo on the left to Twitter, asking my followers, “is this the blight?” The answer, sadly, was yes. So I pulled one plant up, before it could spread to the others, and took all the leaves off the other plant which was confined to a corner, hoping to let it’s three giant tomatoes ripen.

Unfortunately, rooftops are not immune from the soil disease that ravages spuds and tomatoes — I bought my seedlings from two small nurseries upstate, which had grown them locally. But it is possible that contamination had already spread to my tomatoes from the nurseries’ neighbors who bought their plants at big box stores like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, which sold plants in soil from an Alabama facility that carried the blight. Ironically, it is new growers’ enthusiasm that might have exacerbated the disease through increased consumer demand. And while a record number of people are growing some of their own produce this year, excess rain in the northeast has created the perfect conditions for the blight to flourish — but it is small organic farmers that are taking a punch. Read more

I have an entire cookbook devoted to tomatoes.  Admittedly, I have a lot of cookbooks, but tomatoes are the only vegetable in my kitchen with an entire cookbook singing their praises.  But then, they are tomatoes, the crown of the summer growing season and the crop that can make or break a small vegetable farm.  Every strange vegetable from kohlrabi to escarole has its devoted fans, but tomatoes are as much of an American summer institution as baseball and 4th of July fireworks. Tomatoes are the crop that everyone is waiting for.

For those of us living in the Northeast this year, if could be a long wait.  Earlier this summer, tomato transplants sold in Lowes, Walmart, and Home Depot carried the spores of Phytophthora infestans (literally “plant destroyer” in Latin) into the Northeast, where a cool, wet summer provided ideal conditions for an epidemic.  Phytophthora infestans, more commonly referred to as late blight, is an incredibly contagious plant disease, which can knock out entire fields of tomatoes and potatoes in a matter of days.  Late blight was the cause of the infamous Irish Potato Famine of the nineteenth century—this is a plant disease which means business. Read more