Blight Epidemic Worrying New Jersey Tomato Growers


Organic farmer Jess Niederer is terrified of late blight, a destructive disease specific to tomatoes and potatoes that was recently discovered on five farms in New Jersey. She knows the fast-spreading disease has the potential to wipe out her crop of tomatoes at Chickadee Creek Farms, and she also knows the first case of blight in New Jersey this year was discovered in Mercer County.

"Cherry tomatoes were my No. 2 seller last year," Niederer said. Her crops were struck with the disease last year, but it was late enough in the season to spare her from losing a significant amount of money.

This season, the first case of late blight in the state was confirmed in Mercer on an organic farm in late June, said Meredith Melendez, agriculture coordinator for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Mercer County. Four other cases were confirmed on farms in Salem County, said Andy Wyenandt, a vegetable pathology specialist for the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

"With all of this moisture, for growers, statewide diseases are coming on earlier than usual. It's not going to be a normal year," Melendez said.

Experts are anticipating a significant impact on the economy, as tomatoes are considered an important state commodity.

This year's epidemic bears an eerie similarity to a problem with late blight in 2009, when a majority of the state's tomato crops was wiped out. In that case, the epidemic also made its first appearance in June. According to a recent report by McGrath called "Late Blight: Recent Occurrences, Challenges and Future Outlook," late blight occurrences in 2009 were "unprecedented" and had tremendous impacts on growers and gardeners.