It seems that I’m not the only one feeling blighted these days. By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the proliferation of late blight, the devastating fungus that was responsible for the Irish potato famine, which has already destroyed entire tomato fields across New England (with eyes on the potato fields), including the ones in my immediate area. Today’s guest post is by Amanda Cather, farmer and CSA manager of Waltham Fields. She writes a beautiful weekly newsletter, from which she agreed to let me share an excerpt. Here’s what she had to say about the loss of such a labor-intensive but cherished crop:
Tomatoes on our farm are a labor of true love. First, we painstakingly select our favorites from the hundreds of varieties in our seed catalogs, selecting a mix of colors, flavors, ripening dates and yields that we imagine will keep us well fed all late summer and fall. We start the seeds in the greenhouse beginning in March and April, transplant them into larger pots as they grow, and begin to plant them in the field in mid-May. The tomato field requires intensive preparation, mowing down and incorporating thick winter rye and hairy vetch, spreading compost and soybean meal, laying black plastic and putting down mulch in the pathways. As the tomatoes grow in the field, we stake and trellis them to keep them off the ground and carry the weight of the ever-increasing fruit. The harvest itself, in a good year, takes hours every other day. All the while, we're dreaming of the bounty of August and September—the roasted tomato sauces, juicy tomato sandwiches, lightly sautéed Sun Gold cherries with basil and Swiss chard, a platter of lightly salted, multi-colored heirloom tomatoes to eat straight up or with fresh mozzarella. Imagining the varied textures and flavors of our tomato meals helps us get through the work of growing tomatoes to the joyful end: the harvest.
Not this year.
Late blight hit our farm early and hard. We saw the first evidence of the blight a few weeks before many other growers in the area, possibly because of our location, right in the middle of an urban area, surrounded by home gardeners and the big box stores which sold them infected tomato plants. In any case, once it arrived, the cool weather and apparently unending rain spread the disease through the first succession of tomatoes with frightening rapidity. Heavy on the vines and almost ready to ripen, the fruit turned rotten in a matter of days. From one Saturday to the next, the vines withered and died on their trellises. The second succession, planted right beside the first, was hit next. Despite spraying copper, an organically approved fungicide, we saw the blight appear in our cherry and plum tomatoes as well. Once the disease appears, there is no organically approved method of destroying it.
Tomatoes are a hard crop for us to let go of on our farm. They account for a large portion of our share value, and they are just one of our favorites. They are also a valuable donation crop and a big part of our plan for hunger relief and food access work on the farm. In the end, it is the support of the CSA that allows us to move on from what feels like a fairly significant agricultural tragedy for us. We know that shareholders will miss their tomatoes this season as much as we do, but we're grateful for the flexibility of the CSA model, which gives us the space to make hard decisions with integrity without jeopardizing our staff or the health of our soil.
Events like this, which hopefully occur once in a generation, remind us that local food systems are both fragile—a regional disaster can impact an entire crop for an entire season—and resilient—since the commitment of participants and growers to one another can help maintain small farms through the trouble and hopefully turn eaters on to the joys of green tomato relish and other seasonal delights. While we'd certainly rather not learn these lessons at the expense of our tomatoes—how about a crop failure in fennel or kohlrabi instead?—the power of the community you and your farmers have built together will carry us through the blight and into what we hope will be a bountiful autumn harvest. We are grateful for your support in this challenging season.
Please support your local farms this season more than ever.