Blight in the Garden

An everyday nightmare for farmers

Story and photos by Eva Mizer

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A spaghetti squash seedling ready to be planted.

Bonnie Gonyo of Gonyo's Sweet Corn & Vegetables mulls about her farmers market stand alongside her daughter and sister. The stand is decorated with yellow and green squash, bright orange pumpkins, and ripe red tomatoes. Smiles are spread across their faces, and for good reason. This year was almost free of blight.

Blight is a general term for any disease or fungus that can affect a crop. It can come in many forms, at different times of the year, and attack with various symptoms and intensity. Although one might think the most common blights in the North Country only affect potatoes, the most common blights are also associated with tomatoes.

In the beginning of the summer, a strain of blight known as the “early blight” occurs when the weather is warm and wet. The disease can attack the plant by creating lesions on the leaves, stunting growth, and infecting the fruits. Although preventative measures such as fungicides can be employed to prevent such an early blight, once it gets into a patch there is no stopping it.

"We had to pull out one thousand plants and bury them."

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Tomatoes set out in the Plattsburgh Farmers Market.

However, late blight is what scares farmers the most. Affecting a slew of plant species, the disease that causes late blight was the culprit of the great potato famine of the 1850s in Ireland. Spores spread through the air and can be carried great distances by wind patterns, making the spread of infection even more unpredictable and frightening. Late blight kills everything you have,” explains Gonyo.

Last summer, Gonyo's farm was hit hard by a strain of late blight when it came through the Adirondacks and Vermont area, wiping out whole fields of tomatoes. “We lost all of our plants,” she recalls. “We had to pull out one thousand plants and bury them.”

Non-organic farmers who decided to use fungicides, however, were forced to spray their plants every five days for the duration of the season. The process, although possibly saving the crop, does little to improve the farmer's monetary returns.

While some feared that a decrease in production and an increase in costs would negatively affect the price of produce in the markets, the overall price didn't change significantly. “We used to sell at $4.50 a basket, and it went up to $5,” said Douglas Lamoy of Lamoy’s Produce & Greenhouses, “but it still costs more to spray than I ever made back by increasing the price.”  Having farmed for more than 37 years, Lamoy is well known in the area for his corn, tomatoes, and cucumbers. When the blight hit, he was able to save most of his crops by spraying every five days.

"We didn't really have a hard winter, so we were nervous if it was going to stay up here or not."

Ripe tomatoes wait to be made into sauces, sandwiches, or eaten raw.

Normally, a bad blight is destroyed when the frigid winter weather rolls in. However, a warm summer was followed by an unseasonably mild winter last year. “We were so worried this year,” Gonyo contests. “We didn't really have a hard winter, so we were nervous if it was going to stay up here or not.” Fortunately, most of the blight appears to have been eradicated, evident by the bowls and baskets of tomatoes in not only her stand, but of those in the neighboring stands as well.

“Everybody had them last year,” says Pam Mills. “This year we didn't get any.” Mills works at Black Sheep Barn and Gardens in West Chazy, N.Y. Last year, Black Sheep contracted the blight and lost all of their 600 tomato plants. However, this year, crops from her farm didn't see much of any abnormality, and grew exceptionally well. One explanation for this, she says, could have simply been preventative action by putting information in papers, handing out pamphlets, and otherwise getting the word out.

“It was a big scare, but we are definitely optimistic,” Mills says. “There were so many preventative measurements taken by the [Cornell] Cooperative Extension in helping and educating home gardeners and commercial growers that I think it made a big punch on [the blight] this year.”


Have you ever experienced blight or know someone that has?

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