By Tina Wright
For vegetable growers and fans of tomatoes, 2009 was the Year of No Tomatoes as the fungal disease late blight decimated the region's crop and spurred a race for a cure. Gardeners, farmer's markets, and CSAs were all bereft of the red fruit that practically defines summer. If they ever make a movie about "the fight against blight," it should be filmed right here in Ithaca. A Cornell tomato breeder would be one of the stars, and it could be filmed on location at the Cornell Organic Research Farm in Freeville, in its test plots of tomato plants.
Every spring, GreenStar sells seeds from High Mowing Organic Seeds, a certified-organic company in Vermont that's releasing the first truly blight-resistant tomato, Iron Lady, in 2013. Iron Lady tomato seeds may be tough to score this year if demand outstrips supply (there are none on GreenStar's High Mowing seed display rack at present), but in the pipeline are more tomato varieties that offer the same triple-resistance to early blight, late blight, and Septoria leaf spot.
Robin Ostfeld is a partner at Blue Heron Farm in Lodi, which supplies GreenStar with local organic tomatoes and tomato seedlings. This growing season, Ostfeld says, "I'm planning to trial Iron Lady and a new late-blight-etcetera-resistant cherry tomato from Johnny's Selected Seeds called Jasper. I'll be selling plants as well as seeing how they perform on the farm for production."
Ostfeld continues, "Many of my customers have requested late blight–resistant varieties for their gardens. It's so frustrating to grow beautiful big tomato plants and then watch them collapse with disease in the late summer. Obviously, for growers late blight is a serious financial liability because there is no organic method to control it. As far as the specific benefits of Iron Lady, I can't really comment until I see how the plants grow and most importantly how the tomatoes taste. Disease resistance has to be part of the complete package. But they sound promising."
Dr. Martha Mutschler-Chu is a professor in Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell University in Ithaca. With her work in tomato and onion breeding, she strives to make plants naturally resistant to diseases or insects so they don't need spraying. The Iron Lady tomato started with her work.
According to Dr. Mutschler-Chu, "The project that led up to Iron Lady was one that I was aiming at three fungal diseases that defoliate plants in the temperate climate — late blight, early blight, and Septoria leaf spot. The logic was that in order to eliminate the need for fungicide of any sort, be it organic or the ones conventional [farmers] use, the key was to control all three diseases genetically; that if you lacked control over any one of these, you would not eliminate the need for spraying. So they had to cover all three."
Of her collaboration with North Carolina State tomato breeder Randy Gardner (now retired), she explained, "So the Iron Lady is actually a cross between lines from the two institutions. One of the parents is one that I developed with control of all three diseases. ... And the other parent is a North Carolina line that has late blight– and early blight–control."
The Cornell researcher promised, "There will be more varieties in the next couple of years coming out. We actually have second-generation lines, and we have experimental hybrids that are going to be tested for the first time this summer. We're trying to push the envelope on fruit quality and size and things like that."
High Mowing Organic Seeds describes the Iron Lady tomato as a mid-size slicer, dense and juicy with good tomato flavor. Fruit size is three to four inches and average fruit weight is five ounces. Determinate plants are two-and-a-half to three feet tall and do not require trellising. They recommend that Iron Lady be planted away from susceptible tomato varieties. Iron Lady has the strongest possible late blight–control, but for early blight, there is a tolerance, not a resistance. Use of good horticultural controls is still needed.
Jodi Lew-Smith of High Mowing Organic Seeds spoke from their office in Wolcott, Vermont: "We collaborate with a lot of universities who run a lot of trials and try to get a handle on how varieties are performing in different regions. We're always interested particularly in varieties that have a widespread adaptation. That is really something organics needs — and growers in general: something that's just a little more forgiving of variation."
Andrew Hernandez, produce manager at GreenStar, is busy putting together the spring planting lineup that includes seeds, garden soil, compost, and plants — the vegetable, flower and herb seedlings that get the garden juices going. Why should we support High Mowing Organic Seeds at GreenStar? Says Andrew, "This can be summed up in two words: certified organic. They also have really nice quality and they've really developed their packaging — the pictures are beautiful. I don't garden and it makes me want to!"
A good ending to the imaginary movie The Fight against Blight would be a shot of someone new to gardening harvesting a red ripe tomato from their Finger Lakes garden — and eating it right there in the summer sun.
New in Produce
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If you can hunker down through the last of winter —gardening season is coming. Look for organic, local seeds and more.
It's a tough month for local produce, folks, I ain't going to tell you no lie. Blue Heron Farm still has parsnips and potatoes. Stick and Stone is not sure how the carrot supply will hold up, but they still have their root medley. But IT is right around the corner. If you're like me, you're probably still thawing like Han Solo from your carbonite prison, slowly warming and blinking at the light — what is this thing? I believe IT is called THE SUN! Daylight saving time begins March 11, and March 20 ushers in the first day of SPRING! A slow return of green, flowers, and our wonderful abundance of fresh local produce are coming. Soon we will all be biking, swimming, and running around. In the meantime we have lots of potting soil and growing mix, and plenty of seeds. Be sure to check out our awesome variety of organic Fruition seeds, some of which are grown right around the corner at Remembrance Farm in Trumansburg.