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A blight on our potatoes! Mass. farmers cringe.

Byline: George Barnes

It is the bogeyman of plant pathogens - the disease that caused the Irish potato famine - and it is spreading through the state, damaging crops in everything from large farms to small gardens.

Phytophthora infestans, better known as late blight, has been infecting tomato and potato crops in the state since the early part of the growing season. It is believed to have been brought here in plants sold through big box stores and garden centers.

It is the same blight that destroyed potato crops in Ireland in the 1840s, causing starvation and a mass migration of 2 million people from that country.

A pathogen alert has been issued by the state Department of Agricultural Resources and UMass Extension Agriculture and Landscape Program, warning farmers and gardeners that late blight has been detected in potato and tomato plants in the state.

The highly destructive disease can spread rapidly and may infect an entire field in a few days. "We have received reports of late blight from every county," said Kate Plourd, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Food and Agriculture.

Lee Corte-Real, director of the Division of Plant and Pest Services for the state Department of Agricultural Resources, said up to 200 farms statewide may be affected. He said seven farms have lost their entire tomato crop.

Mr. Corte-Real said that although the blight came early to the state, the weather was a major contributor its spread.

"It's just been a horrible, horrible year for growing vegetables in Massachusetts," he said.

Cold, wet weather is ideal for the development of late blight and other plant diseases. The weather has only been good for the blueberry crops.

Late blight causes small olive-green or brown lesions on the upper surface of foliage or stems. There may also be a white fuzzy growth on the underside of the leaves where the lesions occur. Eventually the lesions turn black, the leaves start to die and then the plant dies.

The disease spreads through splashing rain or wind currents. The spores can disperse from one to several miles. The infection spreads best when conditions are moist and temperatures range from 60 degrees to 80 degrees.

Mr. Corte-Real said tomato crops have been more affected than potatoes. He said potatoes have more resistance to the blight, but they also could be what keeps the blight alive next year. If potatoes remain in the ground over winter and do not freeze, they could spread the disease again in the spring.

At Nicewicz Family Farm in Bolton, Tom Nicewicz said his plants have been checked and so far do not appear to have the blight.

"But I would be surprised if we make it through the season without getting it," he said. "We've been trying to keep a regimen of fungicide, but it's really difficult."

Mr. Nicewicz said he has heard at farmers markets of many farms affected, and it is having an impact on prices.

"I was in Somerville yesterday at a farmers market and someone from the valley was selling tomatoes for $5 a pound," he said. "The most I've sold for is $3 a pound."

At Gove Farm in Leominster, grower Paul Gove said he should have a pretty successful tomato crop this year, but only because of the extra effort he has put into battling blight of all kinds.

"It's been a bad year for diseases all around," he said. "It's a perfect climate for growth of fungus."

Mr. Gove said he and his wife, Lisa, have had to spray more to keep their plants healthy. As a result of his efforts, he has not seen any evidence of late blight and he expects to harvest 75 percent or more of his tomato crop.

"We're going to lose a little bit, but nothing major," he said.

M. Bess Dicklow, a plant disease diagnostician for UMass Extension Service, said she has been hearing from growers around the state seeking a diagnosis of late blight in their plants. She diagnoses the disease and offers growers information on how to prevent it from spreading.

"Then it is up to the growers to take the steps needed," she said.

Ms. Dicklow said conventional growers have several options available in dealing with the fungus, but organic farmers are limited to spraying copper on their plants.

"A lot of them have lost entire crops," she said.

Late blight gets its name from its frequent occurrence late in the season. This year was an exception, because the likely source of the outbreak, a big-box store, allowed it to begin spreading early in the season. Ms. Dicklow said both tomato and potato growers have contacted her with blighted plants.

Although it is the same pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine, its impact here is significantly reduced. Ireland in the 1840s was a one-crop economy. Today in Massachusetts, and throughout the country, farmers are more diversified in the crops they grow.

Julie Rawson, executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Organization, also operates Many Hands Organic Farm CSA. She said her plants have not yet been affected by the blight but she is concerned, as are all organic farmers.

On Sunday, the Northeast Organic Farming Association plans to have a panel discussion on late blight at its annual summer conference at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. The discussion, starting at 10 a.m. in the Student Union ballroom, will feature farmers and plant experts.

ART: PHOTOS; CHART

CUTLINE: (1) Paul Gove, of Gove Farms in Leominster, gathers tomato plants that he worked hard to keep from the worst ravages of the blight. (2) Tomato skins split with excessive rain and become more susceptible to disease. (CHART) Phytophthora infestans

PHOTOG: (PHOTOS) T&G Staff Photos/JIM COLLINS (CHART) T&G Staff
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Aug 7, 2009
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