The Local Food Report: cross your hearts

A few weeks ago, I went to Coonamessett Farm in East Falmouth. I met Stan Ingram, who's in charge of the tomato plants there, and we went out together to inspect the troops.

Unfortunately, morale was pretty low. Some were drooping, some were oozing, and some were just missing—gone altogether from their rows.

He didn't seem particularly surprised. It's been a rough summer for tomatoes, not just at Coonamessett, but everywhere from the Carolinas to Maine. It started in June, when the humidity and the rain and the wind picked up, and it's been sort of a downhill ride ever since. The culprit is a disease called late blight, a wildly contagious fungus that flies from plant to plant in the form of little white spores.

Late blight is nothing new—it was the cause of the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s—but plant pathologists say that this year is unprecedented in how quickly and how widely the disease has spread. One week, it was discovered on Long Island, and the next, it was up and down the east coast. And the worst part is it can jump from tomato crops to potatoes, too. Chances are, if you have a garden with either one of these, you have late blight kicking around somewhere. It's been held in check a bit recently by the nice sunny, dry weather, but hardly any place has gotten off entirely scot-free.

Beyond encouraging late blight, the wet weather we had in June also slowed the ripening of the fruits. I found these tomatoes in our garden downtown, struggling to get red. Don't you just want to give them the day off—slap them a pat on the back and tell them it's okay, we understand?

I don't mean to sound all gloom and doom—it's been a first rate year for lettuce and arugula and the cucumbers, even though they arrived late—and the blackberries and raspberries have had a pretty good go of it, too. Tomatoes will just have to wait for another year to shine, that's all.

But the point of all this—what I really wanted to tell you about—is canning. Please, please don't put up any tomatoes this year. Late blight changes the pH of tomatoes, making them less acidic than usual. Even if they don't show any signs of the disease when they're picked, they might still be affected, which makes canning tomato sauce an A-plus recipe for botulism. Freezing sauce is okay—as long as the tomatoes you use are in tip-top shape—but because I really like you all, please don't go putting any crushed or juiced or canned tomatoes in Mason jars this year. Really, cross your hearts, okay?

If you don't believe me, you can find out more over here, and you can read a very interesting op-ed about the disease over here. Finally, if you're wondering what to do with a harvest of un-ripe tomatoes like the ones I have sitting up there, Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times offers some awfully good inspiration for how to cook with green tomatoes over here.

I hope you have a bang-up weekend, everyone. Just don't go sneaking any red fruits into jars.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much. So informative and well written. I love your blog!!

Kellie said...

Thanks for the warning about canning. I hadn't even thought about how the blight would affect that aspect of things. Luckily, our plants look okay and we had no plans for canning anyway. I'm passing on the word though!

Elspeth said...

thank you anonymous for your kind words, and thank you kellie for spreading the word! it shocked me, too, when i first read it, especially since i was planning to can crushed tomatoes again this year. i did still make them, but froze them instead.

glad to hear your garden at least is chugging full steam ahead...


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