Blight plight for NJ tomatoes

July 30, 2009 3:26:59 PM PDT
South Jersey's tomatoes are in trouble and it's all because of a nasty fungus called blight.The Jersey tomato plants in a field in Salem County are sickened by a fungus called late blight which this year has come early and has infected tomato crops along the eastern seaboard including New York and Pennsylvania. It causes the leaves to turn brown and wither, exposing the tomato to the damaging sun.

"It likes rain, high relative humidity, temperatures a little on the cool side, so the last six weeks have been ideal for late blight development," Rutgers vegetable pathologist Andy Wyenandt said.

New Jersey has a $21-million tomato industry and every summer consumers await the arrival of the juicy reds. Wyenandt says late blight also infects potato plants and is the same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine 170 years ago.

It is a spore that is driven by wind and rain.

"In a matter of days you can go from maybe 5-percent of the foliage with late blight to up to 90-percent of the foliage with late blight," Wyenandt said.

The field is a total loss. The farmer will have to plow every plant under in an attempt to stop the spores from spreading to good fields.

The late blight fungus is attacking backyard tomato plants, as well, according to Wes Kline from the Rutgers Cooperative Extension Service.

"We've had a lot of growers come in, homeowners come in, with samples which had late blight on them on, so it's a little early to say how serious overall it will be, but it's definitely a major outbreak," Kline said.

Agriculture experts say its best to pull the plants from the ground, pack them in a plastic bag, and put them in the trash.

John Ebert of Springdale Farm in Cherry Hill says he's been lucky so far.

"It's extremely serious. We've been very vigilant for looking out of this for this problem because as soon as you see it, you have to take care of it. We've been very fortunate that we haven't had any infection; we're having the best crops in recent years, really," Ebert said.

It's too soon to say how costly the late blight fungus will be for New Jersey growers but Wes Kline says it's the worst infestation he's seen since the mid 90's.