The Tomato and Potato Killer: Late Blight Hits Home


Image Courtesy of Indigo Studios

The scene at the Copley Square farmer's market, in the middle of Boston's Back Bay, was as idyllic as you could ask for on an August Tuesday: string beans of green and dappled purple, yellow and white peaches, and my favorite, the small white "saturn"--aka Donut, as trademarked by the always-pioneering Frieda's Finest, in southern California--leggy and frondy fresh fennel, snapdragons and zinnia, long fat beets. And new potatoes. But not many. And no tomatoes except yellow cherries.

I stopped first, as I always do, at the Siena Farms stand, visible from blocks away for the giant floppy sunflowers that, as Chris Kurth explains in a gorgeous shot at the end of our video, pay the bills. They might not this year, he told me. I asked which of the four baskets of potatoes I should try, as there's nothing as sweet, soft, and kind of un-potatoey as a fresh-dug potato, as I wrote in an ecstatic column with directions about the best way to keep their delicate, sweet flavor. (Also the best way to make potato salad: it's German.)

"There are always the fingerlings," Chris said. "But if you want to try the red norlands, this'll be the last. They're gone. And all of the kennebecs you were digging up." Those were the big, handsome round potatoes I was pulling like treasures from his loamy soil. "We've stopped picking them. They were the hardest hit." He meant the late blight devastating farms all over the northeast, as Dan Barber explained in his excellent Sunday New York Times op-ed.

Some potatoes are left, including the fingerlings I took home and steamed on the spot; lovely as always, and next time I'll try the small, pebbly new Idahos he recommends and I'm still skeptical about.

But the beefsteaks I was picking, still small and green, and obsessively sniffing (I'm on a tomato-leaf kick, as I explained)--all gone, and just four days after we filmed. "The late blight turned the stem black," Chris said. "And then the tomatoes. It's serious, man."

He told me that for months he'd been hearing about an infestation of the blight that caused the Irish potato famine, brought in by big-box stores that sold cheap starter tomato plants. The same university extension agents who told Barber of the origins and severity warned Kurth (his were from the University of Massachusetts, Barber's from Cornell). But he shrugged them off: "I thought some new tomato disease, whatever. We always get some tomato disease."

Then he got hit. For dramatic pictures, see the series of 23 from Martha Stewart's blog--she recently got hit too, and as always thoroughly and clearly documents how it happened. It's indeed serious. Chris estimates his own damage this year as at least $20,000, the same disastrous difference between being in the black and being in the red that farmers all over the northeast are facing. (Time to start reading about the epochal Irish famine; there are plenty of books, of course, but I like the exemplary and very readable, and now hard-to-find History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman.) Naturally, I'm stepping up my sunflower purchases.

You'll still find tomatoes, at his and most any market stand, especially as the sun starts to come out (gloomy as it is as I write) after the months of cool rain that were to the blight what hot dry weather is to California brush fires. Unlike some other farmers, Chris said that a few of his heirloom varieties, including striped German and cherokee, are so far untouched (fingers crossed), and Sun Golds, those sweet small cherries, "always pull through." And, as he pointed out with a sweep of his arm, there's lots of beautiful produce available for all: the bags of Tuscan kale, potatoes, and fennel I went home with, the bunches of beets I can never resist (I had to compare two varieties), the fresh raspberries and blueberries everywhere.

"The other crops are enjoying the fine weather that's finally kicking in," he said. You can step up your purchases too.