July 17, 2009

Tomato fungus threatens northern crop

Major crop loss may result from an explosive fungus that destroys tomato plants and is rampant in the Northeast, federal agriculture officials said Friday.

Late blight, a highly contagious fungus, can jump from tomato to potato plants and caused the Irish potato famine in the 19th century. Its spores are common in soil and small outbreaks are familiar to farmers, but the cool, wet weather in June added to the aggression of the pathogen, Martin A. Draper, a senior plant pathologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture told The New York Times.

William Fry, a professor of plant pathology at Cornell University, said part of the reason for the rapid spread is the thousands of plants home gardeners buy at big box stores and the fact the employees at those retailers aren't trained to spot plant diseases as the employees of nurseries are.

Locally grown tomatoes normally get $15 to $20 a box wholesale, said John Mishanec, a pest management specialist at Cornell. He noted some upstate New York growers are talking about $40 boxes already.