Sunday, August 16, 2009

Eulogy for our Tomatoes

Sweat dripping from my face, I walked down the tomato rows pulling stakes, cutting twine, and yanking up irrigation line. It was like the land of the living dead. Half-rotted fruit squished underneath my sneakers, brown and green vines fell tangled on the ground. This is the first week that it's finally felt like summer, the storm clouds staying away for more than a few days, and the temperature climbing up towards 90-- and all the tomatoes turned red at once. Unfortunately, though, when you reach to pick one of these luscious fruits of summer, you realize that on the other side it's completely rotted, or has a brown spot-- the mark of Late Blight.

I tried not to get too emotional over it all, as I prepared the beds for tilling in tomorrow. Good riddance, I said to myself. Tomatoes? What tomatoes? I didn't plant tomatoes. Who needs 'em anyway? So much work...

As the summer heat beat down on my straw hat & longsleeve shirt, I recalled all the events that led up to these poor tomato plants. The seed (expensive, heirloom varieties) was planted in the greenhouse in March, April, & May, on heatmats that kept the soil at a comfortable 80 degrees for germination. Then, tiny seedling by tiny seedling, we transplanted them into larger trays of soil, and they grew happily in the greenhouse, requiring only water every day or two, and the occasional dose of seaweed/fish emulsion. When they were ready for the field, we brought them out & put them in our nicely marked beds, pre-fertilized & composted. The first batch didn't make it-- it was too cold & windy, and they started looking sick. I pulled them out, re-tilled, and started over. The second batch went in healthy, and we covered them up on cold nights with row cover.

Then came the straw mulch. It prevents weeds, and also controls soil-borne fungal diseases (apparently not late blight though). We got old Bob's dump truck started, and drove a few miles down the road to Jack's barn to load up wheat straw bales. We trade Jack vegetables in return for straw, and tractor expertise. Then, in crews, we dispersed the bales of straw 3" thick over all the 5' beds of tomatoes. Almost 10,000 square feet. The baling wire was carefully saved for future inventive uses. The straw had wheat seeds left in it, that sprouted, and had to be pulled like weeds.

As the tomatoes grew, green & rambunctious, they needed support. After making calls to all the farmers I knew, I decided to go with electrical conduit for staking them up. It would last forever, and be easy to handle in the field. Two separate trips with a minivan were made to Maynard's Electric in Henrietta. Then I sawed the 10' "sticks" in half, loaded up the harvest cart & brought them out to the field. Each one was pounded in several times with the post-pounder. I've always thought that working with tomatoes just has to coincide with sun and sweat. The kind of times when you need to wear sunglasses, but you sweat so much underneath the sunglasses that you keep having to take them off in order to see properly.

Then the tomatoes were tied up with twine (expensive, biodegradable natural twine), the "Florida Weave" way-- wearing a backpack loaded with a huge spool of the stuff, wielding a stick through which the twine fed onto the row of tomatoes: under the plants, around the conduit, under the plants, around the conduit... down the whole 200' row, and back up the other side. It's kind of satisfying. And back-breaking. And then we tie off the twine at the end, and wait. Until the plants grow another 8 inches or so, & you do it again. I only got 2 layers of twine up the first plantings, when the blight hit.

Warnings came through friends & family, who'd read about it in the newspaper. Panicky emails started circulating the northeast organic farming network. I called my mentor, Dave, in the Hudson Valley, who'd never sprayed a thing in his life. "What are you doing to prevent this late blight thing?" I asked him. "Ignoring it." was his response. It's all hype: everyone's getting all worried for nothing-- after stressing about it for a few days, I let it drop a bit.

Then the spots showed up. The Cornell Cooperative Extension agent said, yes, that is definitely Late Blight. So I ripped out the first row of tomatoes. Into plastic bags, into the trash. It felt very wrong. But we were controlling it-- I sprayed a beneficial fungus & bacteria onto the remaining healthy plants to ward off the invading fungus. It continued to spread.

Dave called me then, intending to warn me that his tomatoes got the blight, and I better spray something to prevent it. I had to tell him the disappointing news. He had gone out and bought a $600 blower-sprayer to cover more ground efficiently and was spraying copper, until he realized that would only prevent blight; and he had blight already.

We tried to slow down the inevitable death. We sprayed potassium bicarbonate several times, which dried out the leaves so that fungus can't spread as quickly. But it just kept raining. Overcast, stormy days-- there just wasn't enough UV rays from the sun to help sterilize the spores. I gave up.

Does this story have a happy ending? Maybe a few folks learned they love fried green tomatoes. Maybe we all realize a little more how the weird climate changes are really affecting our food supply. Maybe we learn to be creative with other vegetables & adapt our taste buds to the changes. Maybe it's just a hard lesson.

So, next year, will I do the same thing again with tomatoes? Go through the same actions, hoping for more sun & heat, less storms, and the absence of Phytophthera infestins? Probably. But maybe I won't bother staking them up. And maybe I'll also plant more carrots.

1 comment:

floridabamboo said...

This certainly demonstrates the importance of crop diversity. When I visited a few weeks ago, I couldn't believe how lush and healthy all the cool-season greens were in the middle of summer. For all we know, next year will be too hot and dry for the greens to smile in mid summer, but great weather for ripening tomatoes. One thing I've found in working with plants -- the failures die and disappear, so after a while you are surrounded only by your successes. Kinda nice.