As rain persists, blight and fungus invade crops

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BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont agriculture experts are keeping their fingers crossed concerning a new deadly fungus that is threatening Maine’s blueberries.

And they are saying that the next few weeks will be a crucial period in determining how much damage a second fungus will have on Vermont’s tomato and potato crop.

"What we need mostly right now is a change in the weather," said Tim Schmalz, a plant pathologist with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. "It has been a beautiful summer if you are a plant pathogen."

The cool, wet weather this summer is causing an explosion in plant diseases that experts say are always around, but are usually kept at bay by dry, warm periods.

It has been neither dry nor warm for most of June and July and the coming weeks could make the difference between salvaging the harvest and losing entire crops.

Scientists from the University of Maine this week confirmed Valdensinia leaf spot on wild blueberry plants in Sumner, Maine.

The deadly fungus devastated crops in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and blueberry pathologist Seanna Annis said the disease could destroy plants this summer and next in what is one of Maine’s most important agricultural products.

Schmalz has not heard of any reports among Vermont blueberry growers, but said he will likely issue a warning in the coming days to encourage growers to keep a watch for the large, brown spots that first appear on the leaves of the blueberry plants.

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And in Vermont, and all across the Northeast, scientists have been warning commercial farmers and home gardeners against late blight, a fast moving disease that kills tomato and potato plants.

Schmalz said reports of late blight are flooding into his office and at this point, just about every region in the state is seeing signs of the disease.

"This pathogen is universally distributed across Vermont," Schmalz said. "Once it is established, there are not too many curative fungicides. The infection will carry out a complete destruction of the host plant. It is a tough pathogen to deal with."

Late blight was responsible for the Irish potato famine of the 1840s and across the Northeast, scientists, government officials and businesses are grappling with the spreading infestation.

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New York Gov. David Patterson on Tuesday asked the U.S Department of Agriculture to declare 17 counties in his state agricultural disaster areas due to the deadly fungus and wet weather.

And Bonnie Plants, a national distributor of starter plants, issued a press release addressing reports that the company was responsible for the outbreak.

The company said the disease was detected in the region two weeks before any confirmed cases were found in their greenhouses.

Bonnie Plant workers voluntarily removed millions of dollars worth of tomato plants when the seriousness of the situation became apparent.

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"Late blight is not a new or uncommon disease, it has been around for hundreds of years," Bonnie Plants general manager Dennis Thomas said in the press release. "Bonnie produces millions of tomato plants, any of which could become host to late blight, however, if the pathogen was not present, or the weather conditions were sunny and dry, any tomato plant from any grower could not host the disease."

University of Vermont Extension Vegetable and Berry specialist Vern Grubinger said the number of calls confirming late blight are increasing daily.

When the disease was first detected in the state last month, agriculture experts were holding out hope that the weather would turn, but the cool and rainy pattern continued through most of July.

Commercial growers can spray their crops with powerful fungicides but Grubinger said organic growers have very few weapons to protect their plants.

He has not heard of any large-scale commercial growers who are plowing their crops under, but said that everyone is looking to the skies for some relief.

"We saw this coming. If it got hot and dry, we could have avoided this, but it never happened," Grubinger said. "Now we are looking at another week of rainy weather and it has the potential of turning into a bigger problem."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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