Posted by: Bill Stoneman | July 31, 2009

Tomatoes at risk

The vegetable pathologists at Cornell University are getting their 15 minutes of fame (see Andy Warhol) this summer. Reporters far and wide are turning to these scientists for a take on the late blight that is decimating tomato plants in the Northeast.

Generally, they recommend spraying with chlorothalonil to protect plants from the fungus that causes the blight and prevent its spread. Sometimes they note that organic growers generally restrict themselves to a number of copper-based formulations. But they don’t explain the reluctance of organic growers to use mainstream herbicides and neither do typical news accounts.  So here’s what the organic crowd seems to be saying, though its members certainly don’t have as big a megaphone as the Cornell folks do: Eating vegetables sprayed with toxins just doesn’t feel right, especially when recommendations for their use come with underlined, boldfaced capital letter warnings like this one from a recent Cornell fact sheet: READ THE LABEL BEFORE APPLYING ANY PESTICIDE.

The scientists say the toxins will be washed away before the tomatoes are eaten, that we won’t ingest enough of it to do any harm and they’ll break down in our soil reasonably quickly. The organic folks say 1) you’ve got to be kidding and 2) I don’t want that stuff in my soil, or perhaps worse, washing off my soil into a water supply. And they’re not all comfortable with the copper products either. Fox Creek Farm, a community-supported agricultural operation in Schoharie, N.Y., told its members this week that it would not use copper hydroxide. Its owners  wrote, “For up to seven days after application, the copper hydroxide residues can cause irreversible eye damage by corroding  the mucosal membrane in the eye.”

This isn’t a treatise on science here. We don’t have the expertise or the time or inclination to acquire the expertise to come up with an evidence-based course of action for our 12 tomato plants. At the same time, however, we don’t feel completely reassured by the scientists’ reassurances.

We’re cutting yellowed leaves from our plants right now and crossing our fingers. It’s raining like mad in Albany today, as it has so many days in the last month, which creates good conditions for growth and spread of the fungus Phytophthora infestans. It would be sad to go a summer without tomatoes plucked moments before eating. But we’ll pull all the plants out if we have to. We’ll survive because unlike the geniuses at the recently departed Lehman Brothers, we have a diversified portfolio. We have squash and cucumbers and garlic and onions and beans and potatoes and herbs. It’s been such a cool summer that we still have spring lettuce. And it won’t be long before we plant fall lettuce, peas and spinach.

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