If you planted tomatoes in your garden this year and got nothing, you’re in good company.

“I don’t know anyone now who has healthy tomatoes, unless they were grown in a greenhouse,” said Tori Jackson, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension agricultural educator.

John Clark of Farmingdale planted 24 tomato plants and didn’t get one tomato.

There’s no tomatoes at Farmer Whiting’s in Auburn. Buster Whiting does expect to have some in mid-September, but not the normal abundance.

There are few, if any, tomatoes grown in the Benoit Orchard garden in Lewiston.

“We lost probably 75 percent of our tomatoes,” said Nick Benoit, who runs the farm stand. Benoit has tomatoes bought at other Maine farms, including the greenhouse-grown Backyard Beauties from Madison.

Along with corn and cucumbers, “tomatoes is one of our major crops,” Benoit said. Fewer tomatoes “really hurt.”
Consumers who do find homegrown tomatoes are paying more at the farm stand.

The tomato shortage was caused by the record-breaking amount of rain in June and July, followed by a fungus that hurt or killed tomato plants primarily in southern and central Maine, said Jackson, who works in the extension’s Lisbon office, and is an agricultural educator.

The fungus is called late blight, “and is extremely rare,” she said. It’s the same fungus that caused Ireland’s potato famine of the 1850s.

What happened is tomato plants with the fungus were accidentally introduced into Maine by plants sold at big-box stores, including Wal-Mart and Home Depot, Jackson said.

The heavy rain in June and July hurt many crops, prompting the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare agricultural disasters in six counties: Androscoggin, Cumberland, Knox, Lincoln, Sagadahoc and York.

The rain was bad for crops, but good for the fungus.

“The combination of having the fungus here, and the weather with all of the rain and cooler temperatures, provided the ideal situation for the fungus to multiply and spread,” Jackson said.

Spores on plants with the fungus can travel up to 40 miles carried by wind and water. The fungus spread from backyard gardens to some farmers’ fields.

And this year there was a huge increase of backyard gardening by people looking to save. “It kind of backfired,” Jackson said, adding that more backyard gardens meant more chances for the fungus to spread.

Late blight preys on tomatoes and potatoes, but few home gardeners plant potatoes, Jackson said. “The strain we saw down here did not occur up there in Aroostook County. We were lucky.”

Farmer Whiting’s does have cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, lettuce and summer squash, along with their usual abundance of greenhouse-grown flowers.

“We have a farm stand,” Whiting said. “I don’t know if we’re going to open it this year. We’ve lost so much stuff” from the rain. The fungus moved into the area about three weeks ago, he said.

Benoit’s has plenty of vegetables, baked goods, and milk sold in glass bottles. “Not everything is grown by us, but everything we sell is local,” Benoit said.

Jillson’s Farm in Sabattus does have tomatoes that were not hit by late blight, Pat Jillson said. “We’ve been lucky. We have everything. We’re doing very well.”

Farm stands Jillson’s never heard from before are calling looking to buy tomatoes, she said.

Next year should be fine, Jackson said. “The fungus can only survive on a living plant material. … We are working on how to prevent this next year. One thing folks can do is start their own tomato plants from seedlings.”

Despite this year’s unusual rain and fungus, she urged gardeners not to give up. “We’ve had two growing seasons in a year. People are discouraged. But please try again.”

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Kelli O’Connor picks banana peppers at Farmer Whiting’s in Auburn on Thursday. Peppers are behind schedule because of all the rain earlier this summer, but the harvest is in good shape compared to tomatoes. Wet fields prevented farmers from getting into the tomato fields to treat blight. O’Connor, a graduate of Poland Regional High School who lives in Minot, has worked the last two summers on the farm.

The tomato sign sits on a work bench at Farmer Whiting’s in Auburn on Thursday. The sign hangs next to the road advertising tomatoes for sale during a typical summer. But blight has wiped out the tomato crop this summer.

Kelli O’Connor picks peppers at Farmer Whiting’s in Auburn on Thursday. Peppers are behind schedule because of all the rain earlier this summer, but the harvest is in good shape compared to tomatoes. Wet fields prevented farmers from getting into the tomato fields to treat blight. O’Connor, a graduate of Poland Regional High School who lives in Minot, has worked the last two summers on the farm.

About the late blight fungus

Infected tomato plants and tomatoes will be blackened.

While late blight is rare, farmers know what it is and have taken the
infected plants out of their fields, according to the University of
Maine Cooperative Extension.

Homeowners need to do the same. Remove the plants from the ground,
bag them in plastic to keep the spores from spreading, and discard.

Anyone with fungus-infected tomatoes should not eat them because they could make them sick.

For more information about the late blight fungus: http://extension.umaine.edu/HotTopics/blight.htm.
Or call University of Maine Cooperative Extension educator Tori Jackson at 353-5550.


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