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July 26th, 2009
Notes From the Field, July 26, 2009

Amanda Cather, Farm Manager, Waltham Fields Community Farm

[Ed. note: Tomatoes in the northeast have been hit hard by late blight – the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine. This weekly note from the farm manager at Waltham Fields Community Farm, Amanda Cather, gives a sense of the difficulty local farmers are experiencing, as well as the deeper connections to our food and those who provide it made possible by the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model. CSA members share in the risks associated with unpredictable growing conditions, whereas debt-based farming leaves many farmers vulnerable to the whims of nature. The rich diversity of crops grown on these farms is another key to greater resiliency to disease, to difficult weather, and to a changing climate. It’s not too late to join a CSA this year. Check out www.localharvest.org for CSA farms near you, or visit Enterprise Farms for
a year-round farm share available in Western MA and the Greater Boston area.]

Farm Stand 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 sauteed 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, the fungus-like disease that caused the Irish potato famine, 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.

At an extension meeting with other growers last week, it became clear that many organic farms in the state will feel the pressure of late blight in tomato and potato crops to varying degrees this season. When growers asked questions about “when we harvest these crops”, the extension agent answered gently, “If you harvest,” and added, “I think the next two weeks are going to be very depressing ones on alot of farms.” Blight is just beginning to appear on many farms as the field tomato harvest season begins, continuing to be spread by wet weather. Once the disease appears, there is no organically approved method of destroying it. Conventional tomato growers who have the option of a systemic fungicide will probably be able to harvest their tomatoes and potatoes this season. Flowers While some organic growers may, by a combination of luck, isolation, timing and skill, harvest both tomato and potato crops, it is likely that yields and harvest season will be affected for at least a portion of local organic farms. It’s also possible that organic seed potatoes will be hard to come by next spring, since late blight affects the storage quality of potatoes through the winter.

Although we continue to spray every five days on our third succession, which is slightly isolated from the other tomatoes on the farm, we don’t have high hopes for our tomato crop. Our early potatoes, Dark Red Norlands, Red Golds and Superiors, are finished growing, and we mowed the vines to kill them last week in hopes of preventing blight from affecting the tubers. Our late season potatoes come from Piccadilly Farm in New Hampshire; farmer Jenny Hausman reported seeing no signs of the blight in their potato crop as of last week.

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. The whole farm staff has spent hours agonizing over whether to spend huge amounts of labor and resources trying to save the crop, particularly considering the limited effectiveness of many organic methods, or whether to put those resources into the other 35 crops on the farm that need our attention, whether it’s weeding the fall broccoli, planting fall beets, fertilizing leeks, squash and cucumbers, or carefully checking melons for ripeness. 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. We know that we need to work extra hard to make up the value of the lost crop in the CSA shares throughout August, September and October, and we also know that extra broccoli and spinach are not the same as ten pounds of delicious tomatoes. 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.

Claire pointed out that events like this, which hopefully occur once in a generation, remind us that local food systems are both fragile — when 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&#039d 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, as always.

Enjoy this summertime harvest,
Amanda, for the farm crew


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