Organic Food Conference Invites Public to Discussion on Late BlightAMHERST, MA – In response to a blight epidemic affecting tomato and potato growers throughout Massachusetts and all Northeast states this season, coordinators of the 2009 Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) Summer Conference will hold an emergency meeting on organic methods for dealing with the disease on Sunday, August 9, at 10:00am at UMass Amherst in the Student Union Ballroom.
Late blight is a fungal disease whose spores can spread miles from their origin through the wind. Many tomato and potato fields in Massachusetts have already been infected, destroying entire crops. The meeting is being offered free of charge to farmers and gardeners looking for short and long term solutions. There are different points of view about how to manage the disease, even within the organic farming community. The purpose of the meeting is to learn more about the disease and about the different perspectives on organic management options.The meeting will be moderated by NOFA/Mass board member and Hampshire College Farm Manager, Leslie Cox, and will feature diverse perspectives on late blight from both growers and extension professionals. Panelists include: UMass Extension Vegetable Specialist, Ruth Hazzard; Farmer and director of the Real Food Campaign -- a project of Remineralize the Earth -- Dan Kittredge; New York State Integrated Pest Management Program extension educator, Abby Seaman; and owner of Kingbird Farm and organic potato and tomato grower, Michael Glos.
NOFA Summer Conference Coordinator, Julie Rawson said that for the organic community, dealing with the disease is an urgent priority: “The information we'll be sharing at this meeting will help growers find means to survive severely wet growing conditions as witnessed this year, which have helped create a perfect storm for the widespread outbreak of late blight. NOFA’s contribution for addressing this problem in the long term is to find creative ways to work with nature to improve the health of our soils and our farming systems. We can’t take on the conventional approach of trying to kill the disease agents, because it won’t work– for certain in the long run, and not very effectively in the short run either.
Hazzard who has been receiving calls from all over Massachusetts reporting cases of late blight said, "Many organic farms have lost their potato or tomato crop, while others are trying to save fields that are clean or just beginning to be infected. Many have mowed or removed the infected plants so that the fields don't keep producing spores that travel to other farms. Now we need to look at how we can prevent late blight from occurring in future years. It will take a collective effort among farmers and gardeners to prevent late blight from surviving the winter in potato tubers and re-establishing itself from volunteers next season."
Kittredge directs the Real Food Campaign, which focuses its educational work on the role of minerals in the biological system of agricultural soils. He said, “Insufficient soil mineralization is at the heart of our vulnerability to plant diseases. Only through building sufficient mineralogical and biological reserves in the soil to feed the crop through extreme weather years such as this one are we capable of preventing diseases outbreaks on our farms like late blight. This is an opportunity to stand back and look at how we can address the root cause of disease through stepping up our soil management protocols. The basic tools of soil building are relatively inexpensive and not only make our crops more resistant to disease and infestation, but also increase crop quality and yield."
Seaman, who manages a listserv where Extension faculty and field staff share information on the outbreak of late blight in New York and surrounding states, said that "an organic farmer can do a lot to prevent the disease most years, but in years like this where there are sources of spores from outside the farm, and wet and cool weather conditions have been extremely favorable for disease development, even farmers who use the best prevention practices are vulnerable. At this point, farmers in areas where late blight is prevalent can choose to either destroy their potato and tomato crops if they get infected, or try to save them with a fungicide." She said that the only organically approved fungicide shown to be effective against late blight is copper, a product that has been used this year on many different organic farms.
Michael Glos runs a highly diversified certified organic herb, vegetable, and livestock farm in Richford, NY. He also trials and evaluates various potato varieties, and is looking into options for blight resistant potatoes. “Late blight is one of the most catastrophic diseases that can affect an organic farm,” he said. “We got the blight on our farm this year and we burned our potato plants to the ground. On a diversified farm, however, we can ensure that no one crop failure can bankrupt the whole farm, because other things will do well instead.”
Even though copper sprays are approved under organic standards and many organic growers use them, Glos refuses to use them. He says they are toxic to the soil once they build up beyond a certain point, which would likely be crossed were he to have followed the recommended copper spray schedule of once per week starting in July. Glos added, “Under circumstances where our survival as a farm were at stake, we'd consider spraying copper, and I understand why many of our fellow farmers are making that choice this year.”
The NOFA Summer Conference is now in its 35th year, and will take place starting on Friday, August 7 and ending on Sunday, August 9. Information on registering for the conference can be found at (www.nofasummerconference.org). The three day event is an educational and festival extravaganza, featuring over 200 timely workshops for growers, producers, and the general public interested in gathering practical information and finding solutions. Nationally-renowned experts and local New England practitioners will share their knowledge and provide inspiration for attendees interested in urban farming, food safety, organic land care, CSAs, animal husbandry, nutrition, homesteading, and more. A children's program that runs throughout the weekend makes the event perfect for the whole family.
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Immediately following the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) conference, the Daily Hampshire Gazette had a front paged article called "Late blight, a heartbreaker for tomato growers," quoting Dan Kittredge who was on the panel with UMass extension scientists. "...gardeners and farmers can avoid late-blight by preventive maintenance, said Dan Kittredge, a farmer and director of the Real Food Campaign, which provides education on the role of minerals in soil biology. 'When someone has the flu ten people can walk into a room and only five get sick. Just because fungal spores are in the atmosphere doesn't mean they'll all get sick. All the rain of June and July leached minerals out of the soil and the lack of sun shut down photosynthesis and deprived the soil of food.' Restocking the soil with minerals with help the plant survive.'"
Dan Kittredge's tomato plants on the two farm that he manages in different parts of Massachusetts remain healthy, while neighboring farms have had to accept a tomato-less season. His secret? Remineralization of course! Dan has used a combination of three sprays containing different minerals, trace elements and essential oils to ward off the tomato blight. He is "restocking the soil with minerals," as he said on the panel, to keep the plants healthy, and resistant to disease. These products are available to everyone through his Nutrient Density Supply Company which offers a variety of sprays.
Joanna Campe also pointed out at the conference that rock dust applications are not leached out through heavy rains and are particularly recommended on laterite tropical soils for this reason.
Applications of rock dust in the fall would be good prevention for the blight as well as nutrient drenches and sprays throughout the season. Rock dust applications have been very successful in deterring phylloxera for vineyards, botrytis for berries and septoria for lettuce.