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Late blight strikes tomato plants in LI gardens

These tomatoes from the Old Bethpage Restoration Village

These tomatoes from the Old Bethpage Restoration Village are among those that have been affected by the late blight fungus. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Farmers know the ominous signs of late blight - spotted leaves, dark lesions, rotted fruit - from the disease's appearance every few years in their fields.

This summer, home gardeners on Long Island got some unwelcome exposure, too.

Alberta Russell, a Mastic gardener, had to destroy nine of the 27 tomato plants she cultivated this year. Left unchecked, late blight can wipe out entire tomato and potato fields in just a week.

"I've never seen anything like this," Russell said. "It's a shame."

Plant pathologists report an eruption of late blight in tomatoes across the Northeast this summer. Experts blame a spate of cool, wet weather, which fosters the spread of the disease, as well as infected tomato plants sold at big box stores that they think carried late blight into gardens from Ohio to Maine.

The same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine in the 19th century, late blight was first spotted here this year in late June in a Riverhead potato field. The disease has been confirmed in 15 or so home gardens in Suffolk and on at least five Long Island farms, according to the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County.

"If we're seeing it in one site, we can feel pretty confident that it's all throughout that area," said Karen Snover-Clift, director of Cornell University's plant disease diagnostic clinic.


Noticed leaves were curling up

Anthony La Femina of West Islip bought six tomato plants from Lowe's this year. "I noticed they weren't growing and the leaves were curling up on themselves," he said. "I pulled them out, root and all, and put new plants in."

Bonnie Plants, a large Alabama wholesaler, pulled its tomatoes from New York and New England stores in early July but denies that the problem began with its plants, some of which had blight.

Cool temperatures and frequent rainfall created ideal conditions for late blight to spread to healthy fruit in nearby fields.

"You get nights below 50 [degrees] and days below 80 and it just proliferates," said organic farmer Dan Holmes, who had to rip out five of eight rows of tomatoes from the farm at Old Bethpage Restoration Village.

Home gardeners, who tend to be less familiar with the disease, may pose a particular risk for spreading late blight if they fail to properly dispose of infected plants.

"It can move miles," said Meg McGrath, a plant pathologist at the Suffolk extension. While bright sunlight usually kills the spores that spread the disease, "when it's overcast, and then finally it rains - perfect," she said. "Just what the pathogen is looking for."

Shoppers are unlikely to see much of an impact at grocery stores, which buy their produce from all over the world, said Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.

But between the weather and the blight, fewer tomatoes than usual could be for sale at local farm stands. East End farmers interviewed last week said the problems had not yet affected their retail prices - $2 to $3 a pound, depending on the location and variety.


Farmers turn to fungicides

News of the disease sent many farmers to their sprayers to dispense fungicide over their crops. Some reported little or no damage, but others took a hit.

Edmund Hodun of Hodun Farms in Calverton said late blight had swept through most his first planting of tomatoes, an acre and a half that typically yields between 150 to 200 boxes of fruit every few days. Now, he said, "I'm basically just trying to pick through and salvage my money. The plants are dying. I'm open for pick-your-own, and people are wandering around in the field asking, 'What happened?' "

Organic farms are especially at risk because the most effective fungicide sprays are not certified for organic use.

Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht was relieved to learn this week that tomatoes at her farm, Garden of Eve in Aquebogue, weren't afflicted with late blight. But the weather and other diseases have made it harder to produce her usual array of heirloom tomatoes.

"We just try to be philosophical about it," Kaplan-Walbrecht said. "If you've got torrential rain, your potatoes, celery and lettuces are going to do well."

>> Read more about late blight on Long Island

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