We just started a farm in Haywood County. Tomatoes seem to do well here but I hear talk about tomato blight being a problem. What can I do to prevent it?
– New Organic Grower
Blight is probably the single biggest issue for organic tomato growers in Western North Carolina. Our warm days and cool nights grow some of the most flavorful tomatoes in the world, but those conditions are also great for fungus diseases. Our weather also goes through wet and dry cycles within the season. If a wet period happens just as the tomatoes are getting started in May and June, early blight will be an issue. If it happens in late August and September, late blight is likely.
First, let’s consider early blight. Despite their similar names, early and late blight are different diseases. Early blight is soil borne and infects the tomato plants from soil that is splashed onto lower leaves and then it moves up the plant. In dry years tomatoes can outgrow early blight so yield is not affected. Organic and plastic mulch help avoid that initial infection from the soil. Removing yellow leaves with the characteristic target spot also helps, if you can take the time to do that at a field scale. The main organic management method for early blight is vigorous plants. Correct pH, regular irrigation, and soil supplements matching the soil test results are some of the best ways to ensure vigorous plants. In most years early blight is a nuisance but will not threaten the success of your crop.
Late blight is a completely different matter. The first step in managing late blight is to get in the proper frame of mind. I suggest putting on the Jaws soundtrack. Late blight is the same disease that led to the Irish potato famine. One August I was anticipating my best tomato crop ever when ten days of rainy, misty weather moved in. A few days after the first blight damage the foliage was gone, the fruit were infected, and the crop was a total loss. That disappointing experience led to a SARE-funded research project on our farm and on Pat Battle’s farm in Celo. We tested compost tea, hydrogen peroxide and copper sulfate – all organically approved control methods. None worked outside but copper worked great under cover. In my view, copper fungicides are the only organic solution to late blight.
Copper fungicides have three problems. The first is that copper is a nutrient at low concentrations but it is toxic at higher concentrations. Excessive spraying over several years can poison your soil indefinitely. The second problem is that copper is a preventative fungicide. It does battle with fungal spores on the leaf surface. Once the invaders infect a leaf, that leaf is lost, so copper must coat every leaf when the fungal spores arrive. Unlike early blight, late blight is air borne. It blows in from other states and drifts down on the tops of plants. The leaves appear water-soaked and black. The third problem is that copper washes off in the rain.
Despite all this gloom and doom, organic tomato culture is not hopeless. First, not every year is a late blight year. When the weather turns dry in late August and September, late blight may never appear. Growing tomatoes under cover is another solution – one that has worked very well for us. Greenhouses and cold frames are expensive, but without direct rainfall, copper fungicides stay on the leaves and are very effective at preventing late blight. Finally, the Mountain Horticultural Center has an active tomato breeding program and they isolated the genes that counter both early blight and late blight. Within a few years we are likely to have great tasting tomatoes that are resistant to blight. (Please note that I referred to a breeding program. A genetic engineered approach is ruled out for organic production.)
For now, here are my recommendations for organic tomato growers:
•Use vigorous plants and mulch to manage early blight.
•Use drip irrigation to avoid long periods of wetted leaf surfaces.
•Invest in cold frames or greenhouses for “insurance” against late blight
•Plant no more tomatoes outside than you are willing to lose (about half the time you will get a crop outside).
•Find an acceptable copper spray on the OMRI list and use it weekly as soon as late blight is reported in the area.
•Use a mist blower to ensure good coverage deep into the plant foliage.
•Use plastic mulch to intercept copper overspray (your certifier will ask about this issue).
•Keep spraying even if late blight gets into your coldframe. (You may lose leaves but you can protect the new growth with weekly sprays.)
You can take the Jaws soundtrack off the I-pod now. Late blight is manageable but we need to plan ahead to do it well.
Ask Tom © 2013 Tom Elmore & Organic Growers School
Tom Elmore is co-owner and operator of Thatchmore Farm in Leicester NC. He has grown certified organic fruits and vegetables for 25 years and serves on the Boards of the NC Greenhouse Vegetable Growers Association and the Organic Growers School.