Local gardeners are still learning about the late blight disease that is affecting tomato plants in the Northeast.

While she was getting several calls a day, said Cornell Cooperative Extension Chenango County horticulture and natural resources educator Rebecca Hargrave on Monday, the only confirmed reports in the Chenango County were in the Norwich area.

Many people have self-diagnosed the disease, which is largely carried by wind-borne spores, she said.

"Most diseases that affect tomatoes don't look like this," she said. Late blight can cause large, dark lesions on leaves stems and fruit.

But with all the wet weather, there are several diseases out in force, including early blight and blossom end rot, she said.

In previous years, late blight has been an isolated disease, CCE officials said, but with wide distribution of plants by a wholesale grower to large retailers in the Northeast, Bonnie Plants of Alabama, the disease has become widespread.

Dennis Thomas, general manager of Bonnie Plants, said it was wrong for his firm to be singled out as the source of the disease in the Northeast.

A disease's spread takes a pathogen (the late blight), a host (the tomato plant), and ideal weather, he said. The company has destroyed millions of plants recalled from stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's to prevent them from serving as a host, he said.

"We didn't cause this," he said. "We are a victim."

People need to get proper identification for their plant's disease before they pull their plants, Hargrave said. They can go to their local extension office for more information.

Cornell is doing free testing for the disease. More information is available at http://plantclinic.cornell.edu. The test results can take a couple of days.


Late blight is always a possibility for tomatoes, said CCE of Delaware County senior educator Janet Aldrich. But the cool, wet weather is conducive to many tomato diseases, so testing is important.

State Agriculture and Markets spokeswoman Jessica Chittenden said growers who use weed barriers such as plastic and mulch are not as affected.

At Asbury Gardens in Oneonta, assistant manager Willie Cool said a couple of people have come in looking for fungicides, which can be helpful to control it. He has been recommending Bravo, with chlorothalonil, and Bordeaux Mixture.

At Mount Vision Garden Center, manager Eddie Wilms said about 10 people have called, and five have come to the garden center during the last two weeks to ask about the disease. He has about 1,000 tomato plants in the field and a lot of potatoes, and he hasn't seen the disease yet, he said.

"We check daily," he said, and questions should be directed at CCE.

As for the problem, he felt it was wrong to blame any one source.

"It's a wet year, and tomatoes are susceptible to diseases in these conditions," he said. "Every tomato grower knows that."


State CCE educator John Mishanec said the widespread nature of the disease was the fault of "industrial agriculture." Growing plants on such a large scale prevents the control of pathogens possible in smaller operations, he said.

Cornell plant pathologist Meg McGrath said work is going on to determine whether it came from one source _ so far, that appears to be the case. However, she said, it is absolutely safe to eat blighted tomatoes because they do not produce a toxin.

This is the fifth time she has seen an outbreak in her 21 years in the field, but this the biggest.

It's too soon to tell how it will affect the price of tomatoes in stores, she said. If other areas can supply the Northeast, growers might have to absorb the higher cost, she said.

"I'd like to see us support local growers," she said.


Staff Writer Mark Boshnack covers education and agriculture.

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