Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A farmer's notes

Hello Farm Girl Farmers

One week ago I never would have imagined that I would be writing about total crop loss on the farm.

I’ll cut to the chase and let you know that despite three solid days of spraying with an organic fungicide, we have lost our entire tomato crop with the possible exception of some cherry tomatoes. We will see in the next few days how these vines fare.

Our disappointment is enormous. In the best of conditions, tomatoes are a very labor intensive crop. From painstakingly choosing varieties in January to arrive at the perfect balance of early, middle-, and late-season ripeners, color shape and size...to starting the seedlings and potting them up into bigger cells and watering and fertilizing and transplanting outside...to buying and laying the plastic and buying and pounding in stakes every four feet and trellising, trellising, trellising, we have invested enormous time, money, and love into our tomato crop. To lose these plants, laden with green fruit, on the brink of tomato season is unfathomable.

Last week was the first instance I heard of farmers in our area struggling with the blight. I began hearing from friends close-by that they had spotted the fungus in their fields and were considering pulling their tomatoes—within 24 hours, all three of these farmers HAD pulled their tomatoes and told me of many others in New York and Massachusetts who had done the same. I’d been monitoring my plants, of course, and had seen no signs of the blight.

But on Thursday, I went out to the fields to inspect again and found infected plants in all beds of tomatoes. We began spraying on Friday despite the knowledge that this would probably be ineffective—how could we not at least try? We sprayed on Saturday and Sunday and on Monday, had to concede that we’d lost the battle and lost the tomatoes.

The fungus affects potato plants as well, and this fact could be the most serious aspect of managing the spread of Late Blight: if the fungus makes its way from the vines down into the tubers themselves, the fungus will survive the winter on any potatoes that remain in the ground. Growers are being advised to harvest all potato crops now, ready or not. We are almost done harvesting our early potatoes and will not be planting a fall crop.

At Farm Girl Farm (and, I’m sure, at all the neighboring farms), we have three intertwined priorities now: first is to get alternative crops in the ground as soon as possible. With the weather continuing to make it nearly impossible to till the fields, this is more difficult than it would be in an ordinary season, but we did have two partially dry days (Monday and today, Tuesday) and we’ve got the rototiller running.

Second, we need to manage the disposal of the affected plants in the best way possible so as to minimize further spread to our neighbors and minimize residue left in the soil for next season. There is conflicting information about the best way to achieve this goal, in sum, it seems the tomato vines must be bagged and removed or buried far from our growing spaces. Either way will be time consuming and tough on morale!

Thirdly, we hope against hope that a few plants may survive—a few hot days could stem the spread of the fungus and stop the progress of the damage. We haven’t heard of this happening in anyone else’s field—the power of hope and denial are enormous, though!

I almost forgot to end on a bright note: the beauty of being a diversified vegetable farm is that tomatoes were not the only thing we had going for us. I take much solace in casting my gaze on the unaffected crops which are doing their best to produce in this crazy season: the peppers and eggplant, the melons (come on melons!), the cucumbers and squash, the kale and collards…we’ve got food, and more food on the way.

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