Wednesday, September 9, 2009

News from the Farm: Summer of Tomato Blight

The Summer of Tomato Blight and What It Means For American Civilization
By Chris and Eve Kaplan-Walbrecht

We know that for many people tomatoes are the queen of the vegetable world in terms of flavor, sweetness, ease of cooking, and familiarity. They are also one of the most seasonal vegetables, very perishable and difficult to ship across long distances without losing their flavor and quality. When you receive your local, organic, vine-ripened tomatoes we know that many of you experience it as a special reward for making the effort you put into picking up your CSA share each week, all throughout the season.

We were really grateful and excited to be able to bring you our delicious red, heirloom, and sungold cherry tomatoes this year for four weeks, despite some of the most challenging weather and disease conditions we have faced. We know that the majority of CSAs in the NY area this year did not receive any tomatoes. We hope you enjoyed them.

That said, we are sorry to let you know that we have lost the majority of our late tomato crop to late blight. The first signs appeared one week ago on the Friday before last weekend’s huge rain storm, and by the Monday afterwards almost all the plants were completely dead from the fungus, with even the green tomatoes damaged by large black rotten spots which make them inedible and unsalvageable. This is our first experience ever (in nearly 10 years of growing) with this disease. Chris is somewhat heartbroken, because he managed to time this planting perfectly to start producing for you this week, right when our earlier planting is petering out, so that we could have provided you with ripe red tomatoes for two months, instead of just one.

We are sure that you’ve read plenty about the late blight in the NYT, and all the other media that have picked up this story. It is a sad irony that this plague was partially caused by the same “omnivore’s dilemma” flood of interest in gardening and growing our own food, which led people who look for low prices, convenience, etc to buy vegetable plants at big box stores, and unwittingly spread this terrible disease. Don’t ever buy plants at big box stores! These plants are grown en masse by industrial-scale greenhouse operations, they are heavily sprayed, shipped long distances, held for long periods of time in poor growing conditions, and are generally about ready to die once you get them – which then makes gardeners think they have a black thumb!

To us, the moral of the story is larger than merely the tomato plants themselves and a disease spread by the cargo trucks that carried them up from the south to later infect farms all across the Northeast.

Though the renewed interest in eating local and gardening is important, we must “close the loop” between producers and consumers in all aspects of our lives. We must complete the “Quality Revolution” and end the “Quantity Revolution” of the past century. The Quantity Revolution, also called the Industrial Revolution, was all about making more and more and more stuff available at ever cheaper prices. Big Box Stores are the epitome of this system, selling huge amounts of low-quality, inexpensive goods made far away with cheap labor.

The summer of late blight has harshly shown us that a million cheap diseased plants aren’t worth even one healthy plant that will actually bear fruit! The Quality Revolution means more and more people doing what most of you are doing, i.e. buying food direct from farmers, buying garden starts direct from the people who grow them, and paying more attention to the result than the price – not that you have to be rich to do this, you just don’t buy as MUCH stuff. (Quality, not Quantity).

More than just the story of a tomato disease that affected us all, the “Summer of Late Blight” seems to us a strong metaphor for the vulnerability of our highly esteemed consumer culture on which American civilization now depends. Biology will trump economy any day of the week, so we’d better be ready. Aren’t you glad you know where your vegetables come from? You even know how to get to the farm, if your survival depended on it, to get food. And we’d welcome you out here! Thank you again for supporting our farm, we feel gratitude for being able to feed you.

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