reflections from the southeast PA rural underground
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Late Blight: Spray 'em or Bust!
It wasn't the first time it happened. Truth be told, it was a fairly common yearly occurrence except that it had come two months early this year. It wasn't referred to as late blight for nothing. This particular fungus, that could ravage an entire field of tomatoes, potatoes, or whatever other solanaceous crop it fell onto, was supposed to rear its ugly head right about the end of an average tomato season. The last time I saw it was in the third week of September, 2006. Within two weeks it had claimed the last 5,000 (yeah that's right--5,000) tomato plants. Untold profits sifting into the wet, gray sky like fireflies rising suddenly, in a gentle swarm, from their low hiding spaces in an empty field. Invisible spores with the strength of a Grecian regiment. No evil intent, mind you. But just as ferocious all the same. That year we cut our losses and let it do its thing. The bulk of the tomato crop had been harvested and the crop had been cashed.
"We're just trying to get a handle on how some of the farmers here at the Greenmarket are being affected by the blight," said the Time magazine journalist inquisitively. "How have you dealt with the problem and what has the effect been on your business?," she asked me. Wow, I thought. Late blight has caught the attention of a national publication. Was it the fact that there was such a rise in the number of certified organic farmers in the past few years? Certainly this had to be a big part of their interest. The farm I co-managed had never even applied for certification. For too many reasons to mention, it just didn't make sense. While this year we had grown all of our spring and summer crops in the organic/natural manner we always had, we were forced to spray fungicide on our tomatoes. People often talk about sustainable agriculture. It's ironic, though, that when the word sustainable is mentioned, it rarely refers to being financially sustainable. I guess viable would be a better word in this context. Still, it seems to be a little known fact outside the world of "sustainable agriculture" speak that most organic farmers, certified or not, are lucky if they break even financially each year, much less make a profit. Why does this tie into discussions of locally grown, organically grown, certified organic, naturally grown, etc.? Because while it may not be the first issue or notion that comes to mind when the topic arises, it may be the biggest elephant in the room.
"We aren't certified organic. We never have been and our farm has been able to exist almost solely on the sale of tomatoes. There wasn't any way that we could survive this year without the use of some kind of conventional (read: chemical) spray being used on some of our tomatoes," I replied to the journalist. A viable business is not without some bottom line somewhere. "If I couldn't spray my plants I'd be out of business," the owner of our farm said to the latest wondering chef. The conversation naturally put the farmer somewhat on the defensive as he anxiously explained how an entire 15 year savings had been put on the line to purchase a farm last fall. It had become time to stop renting and letting the cash crop be obliterated so soon afterward was not an option. Buying the farm was also none too soon. To date, we haven't seen any disease on the new field's somewhat virginal soil which may simply be a result of not having been planted with tomatoes for decades, if ever. Tomatoes almost always thrive in new soil because all the many diseases that affect them are not yet established in the soil. Assuming the soil is favorable otherwise, that is.
"Do you have anything smaller?" asked Nelson, a recent NYU grad who was interested in farming and who had been working at our market stand now for about a month. This after he had just asked me for twenties to make change for Uma Thurman who was standing in front of him. I had stepped over to Tim to get the twenty dollar bills I was short on so early in the morning. We were both looking at each other knowingly, but all I could think was that the glasses she had on were not that flattering. It turned out that neither Nelson or Tim had known who she was, even though Tim had sort of whispered to me, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, "Who, who is that? Is she famous?" It wasn't like it was the first time she had bought our tomatoes. Lucky for us she didn't ask the dreaded, "Are they organic, are they sprayed?"
But what of the hundreds of farmers all through the mid-atlantic and northeast region of the country who are putting high hopes into selling the most popular of all August's acidic fruits? The farmers that truck into New York's Greenmarket from "upstate," as is the label for all farms north of and including the Catskills and beyond. The summer that gave rain and then more rain and then just kept on raining, week to week, month to month. The summer in which July was on schedule to be the second coolest on record for New York City. Sure they could sell their zucchini, eggplant, peppers, and corn but what had weight like a tomato? What could draw a price to match Whole Foods' $5.95/lb. for the next six to eight weeks? When we put a 1lb. Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter heirloom tomato on the scale at our stand and the price reads $5.50 or a rare $6.00 for one tomato it's something to behold. As John McPhee might say, that's a fruit that, even if only for a very short season, "gives good weight."