In an unprecedented summer season of rain and cool temperatures combined with the ubiquitous distribution of Bonnie tomato plants sold from big box stores, the northeast and mid-atlantic states have been hit with a fungal disease called Late Blight. Known to affect tomatoes (and more recently potatoes) it is virtually making it impossible for people to find locally grown organic tomatoes. This is the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840’s and its virulence is unparalleled in agriculture and in medicine. I cannot come up with a similar human infectious disease except maybe the plague. There are no modern infections that I know of that can take hold of its host and essentially decimate it within days while being incredibly contagious. It’s been described as a “nuclear bomb” in its rapid widespread destruction. The only thing that can stop it is a long spell of dry, hot sunny weather. As I write this entry, it is raining and it has rained 6 of the last 7 days. The future is grim as I look upon the 10 day forecast, each day with a picture of thunderstorms.
However present it is on my mind, most people are still unaware of how bad the situation is. Since June, there have been a scattering of reports online, in local newspapers and briefly on 15 second sound bites on the 11:00 news. The New York Times finally reported the situation on July 18th and on July 28th they ran another article, this time on the severe impact blight is having on upstate New York organic farms. Typically, tomatoes are a tremendous cash crop and for a profession that pays very little, this is a devastating blow. For those organic farmers who have not yet been hit, the use of copper as a preventative fungicide is not without significant costs. One farmer noted that it costs her $1000 to spray her crop and each spray has to be reapplied after it rains. Adding insult to injury, blight has most recently made the jump to potatoes.
Because of globalization of agriculture, many people may not notice a change in availability in their grocery stores. They’ll still be able to purchase tomatoes. I went to a local farm stand in New Jersey last weekend to find that the tomatoes they were selling were produced in a hothouse in Pennsylvania and they were not organic. Greenmarkets in the city, usually abundant with heirloom tomatoes at this time, fill their tables with other produce. What about us? We first found out we had blight on the tomatoes on July 10th and pulled a section of 15 tomatoes out and laid down black plastic to sterilize the soil. Since then it has been a frenzy of research and daily time consuming maintenance. We had evidence of blight in some of the other beds and usually, if it’s there, there’s not much you can do but pull out the plants. We used a creative combination of biodynamic preparations, organic seaweed fertilizer with humic acid to strengthen the plants resistance, and a foliar spray made with a New Zealand herb called horopito. I even talked to the plants, yes I did. We did this intensively for 2 weeks and it seemed like we were winning the battle. I planned on broadcasting the news to every interested farmer and gardener but then the rains returned and they have been relentless. Two days ago we had a flash flood rainstorm. That nailed the coffin as it enabled any spores to jump to other plants or to reach higher leaves. This time a whole bed of Russian fingerling and Blue Adirondack potatoes had to be pulled as well. I pulled plants, trimmed leaves just trying to buy time so that the large plentiful green fruit would just start to ripen. I spent at least 2-3 hours daily managing and spraying my herbal teas on the plants,so much so, that when I’d close my eyes, I’d see the characteristic olive colored lesions on leaves and stems like they were pasted to the back of my eyelids. Much of the rest of the farm has been put on hold and weeds are starting to become more present than I’d like them to be. As it stands I expect almost all of the 109 tomato plants we planted to be gone by the end of this week. My shift has now got to be fall plantings and the bounty that awaits us in the fall and winter.
In the meantime I think it’s also important to explore the potential health hazards from blight as well. As a preventative measure, non-organic conventional farms are using large amounts of fungicides - particularly chlorothalonil, also known as Daconil or Bravo. No doubt, this will be heavily sprayed this season. Many of you who choose to eat organically understand the implications of pesticide laden foods and it’s even more important in this upcoming season to buy organic tomatoes and potatoes. And if you have children this becomes of paramount importance. Recently, a team of UC Berkeley researchers discovered an enzyme called paraoxonase which is produced in the body and helps break down organophosphate pesticides; children under seven do not produces nearly as much as adults do and levels deemed safe by the FDA may be quite different for young kids and toddlers. Though not technically an organophosphate, chlorothalonil is a “probable” carcinogen, a ground water contaminant highly toxic to aquatic life, a likely endocrine disruptor and reproductive toxin. It is also implicated in “colony collapse disorder” -- the die-off of honey bees across the country. What is even more frightening is that the breakdown products of chlorothalonil are 30 times more acutely toxic than chlorothalonil itself and is more persistent in the environment.
What can one do when the urge for a great salsa or a pasta caprese hits you this summer? Certainly, one option is to buy organic tomatoes although they likely travelled a great distance to get to your market. My commitment to eating locally has made this decision difficult. Beets can be a nice sweet substitute but what I plan on doing is to freeze the small bounty of Sungolds, Sweet Millions and Double Rich tomatoes that started coming in before we were hit. The cherry tomatoes can be frozen on an cookie sheet for an hour, then put into a sealed plastic bag like little marbles and stored away for use later in the season. If you think blight has hit your plants, you can harvest as soon as there is a hint of color in the tomato, wash it off and keep it out in a bright area to fully ripen on its own. We started doing this when we knew we lost the battle. If the disease is severe and can't be maintained by pruning, pull the plant and either burn it or put it into the garbage as spores can remain in the soil and affect next year's crop.
Any green tomatoes that don’t turn or have a small amount of blight on it can be used in delicious creative ways (just cut off any affected parts and never compost blight infected plants or fruits). Interestingly, the Department of Agriculture has studied and reported that tomatine, an alkaloid found in higher concentrations in green tomatoes binds to cholesterol and lowers undesirable LDL levels in the body (based on animal testing). Dr. Mendel Friedman, involved in the research also found that “an extract of green tomato lowers the incidence of cancer in animals, and last month he reported that both this extract and purified tomatine inhibit the growth of various human cancer cells. Other studies have found that purified tomatine seems to stimulate the immune system in desirable ways.”
In any case, only momentarily in the midst of a 3 hour pruning and spraying episode yesterday, did I contemplate not wanting to ever growing anything again. That, of course, passed quickly and I’ve used this as a meditative exercise in letting go of attachments and went back inside to figure out which seeds I need to sow for the fall.
Fried Green Tomatoes (Gluten-Free!)
My husband noted that this dish had a meaty consistency - like eating veal. I thought it tasted similar to eggplant parmesan (without the cheese). Either way, it was truly delicious.
4 medium unripe tomatoes
3/4 cup fine cornmeal
3-4 Tbs vegetable oil or clarified butter (ghee)
Salt and freshly milled pepper
3 Tbs chopped basil, tarragon or parsley (I used a combo or purple, cinnamon and lemon basil)
Slice tomatoes crosswise 1/4-1/2” thick. Press each piece into a plate of cornmeal to coat on both sides.
Heat oil in a wide skillet over high heat until hot enough to sizzle a drop of water.
Add tomatoes, reduce heat to medium and fry on both sides until golden. Remove to plate and season with salt and pepper and serve with the chopped herbs on top.
From Deborah Madison’s indispensable book “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.”
Farmer Pam, MD
An important New York Times editorial entitled "You Say Tomatoes, I Saw Agricultural Disaster" written by my favorite chef and celebrated local food promoter, Dan Barber from Blue Hill at Stone Barns.