August 4, 2009

Late Blight Tomato Tragedy

I just watched an episode of Jamie at Home, a beautifully produced Food Network show (DVR it, folks!) and it darn near brought me to tears. I knew I shouldn't watch it, that it would be like watching "Father of the Bride" when I'd just been left at the alter, but I did it anyway and now my heart is wrenching even more so than it had been before, all because the episode was entirely dedicated to one seasonal food: tomatoes.

It just so happens that a few hours before I watched the show I received an email from my CSA reporting that all their tomatoes had fallen victim to late blight, a disease that specifically attacks tomatoes and potatoes and is currently spreading throughout the Northeast. Behold:

The agony. The horror. You think I kid. Seasonal tomatoes (not that pink Taco Bell crap) are among my top favorite foods, and they're really only available in late summer. Caprese salad with tomatoes, basil and fresh mozzarella would be my last meal if it ever came to such a thing. When I first read about late blight, it struck me as an important issue, but other than paying a little more once tomato season rolled around, I didn't see it as something that directly affected me.

Obviously I wasn't thinking about my CSA membership. And truly, other than remembering to show up every other week to pick up my share of Hearty Roots farm's produce, I hadn't thought a lot about it. When I joined it seemed like an easy way to access fresh, seasonal veggies without leaving my neighborhood. I didn't give a whole lot of thought to the underlying idea - Community Supported Agriculture. But when I wrote them a check back in March, I was agreeing to receive a share of this summer's yield - no matter what that yield happened to be. Weather and pests and tomato killing fungi were now my issues too, whether I consciously thought about them or not.

To plenty of people, this is probably not the most economically efficient way to go about obtaining fresh produce. I could just as easily take the $250 or so that I alloted for the CSA to the grocery store and farmers' market each week and award that cash to whomever had done the best job growing whatever looked appetizing to me. Hopefully that would have included included several local farms, but if I wanted tomatoes later this season, the money would probably have to go to a grower outside my community. And while happy little me would have my Caprese salad, I would be a lot less interested in what caused the spread of this disease and what I can do about it (along with the wet weather, pathologists are eying unregulated garden centers at big box stores as the culprit.)

I'm not really a locavore (that's an issue I hope to explore later) but I do believe in supporting my local community to a sizable degree, especially when it comes to produce. While I'm certainly no economist either, I know that by paying a local farm upfront whether I receive a bountiful share this summer or not helps to ensure that next year, they won't be entirely out of luck and money because they lost this year's tomato profits. And if they stay afloat and I join next summer, hopefully I'll see some nice local tomatoes again. There's no way to tell exactly how much money I personally lost on tomatoes (which actually softens the blow a bit) but for now I'm okay with it.

On the home gardening front, I checked out detailed photos of late blight's symptoms and now I'm not even sure my Topsy Turvy plants are okay.

Only one leaf looks kinda funky (I pruned this one just to be safe) and the stem on that same plant has these brown bumps, but they don't match other photos of affected brown stems. It's hard for me to tell since this is the first year I've grown tomatoes. Any expert growers out there have any thoughts? I bought them from a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket, not a big box store.

Speaking of the Greenmarket, yesterday it looked like a lot of farm stands were selling decent-looking tomatoes on the cheap, around $2.50 per pound with "today only!" signs. I don't know if it's related to late blight - maybe they're hoping to get some profits out of their current crop before the disease does any further damage? - but in any case, you might want to snatch some up while you still can.

1 comment:

  1. I am SOOOO sorry for your loss of CSA tomatoes this year, but thanks for this update because it encouraged me to get out to the farm market here in DC and stock up on tomatoes while I still can. I highly recommend Mario Batalli's recipe for basic tomato sauce, substituting fresh tomatoes for canned Italian tomatoes. He sautes onion and garlic, then tosses in some grated fresh carrot and fresh thyme until it's softened. Then add the chopped tomatoes and simmer until thick. Salt only at the end to taste. YUM. Oh... sorry... maybe next year...