Abundance of rain, 'late blight' harm crops

Mary Ann Thomas
| Sunday, July 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Dan Bachman, owner of Bachman nursery, greenhouse and farm market in Harrison, is disgusted with what look like midget zucchini plants and other vine vegetables in flood-smoothed soil in his Winfield Township growing fields.

“The corn is great, but the lower plants are stunted,” said Bachman, who tends a 20-acre field to supply his market.

He planted on a slope, so the plants on top and on the side are doing well. But the plants at the bottom, where the water collects, can't seem to grow.

The long, cool spring, followed by hot and humid weather and rain has been a bad combination for the lower half of Bachman's fields.

“It's been the hardest year I've ever had, and the rain has made it worse,” Bachman said.

It's too early to tell if the high volume of rain in other Northeastern states and the Midwest will impact vegetable prices for consumers later this summer, according to Ricky Volpe, economist with U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.

But here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the long string of storms has saturated some farms, as rainfall this month has been double the normal precipitation.

“We were above average, but we didn't break a record,” said Rodney Smith, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Moon Township.

“There was more substantial rainfall east of the Appalachians and along the mid-Atlantic Coast,” he said.

There's a double whammy, because storms carry in diseases and insects, according to Bob Pollock, an extension educator for horticultural crops for Penn State Cooperative, who is based in Indiana County and covers Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The dreaded “late blight” — the disease responsible for the infamous Irish potato famine — was confirmed in tomatoes in Indiana County on Wednesday and in Somerset on Thursday, he said.

Consequently, a number of farmers are applying fungicides to guard against a possible late blight scourge.

Like the storms, themselves, farmers impacted by the wet weather are scattered.

“Overall, things are positive, but there are certain problems in Western Pennsylvania,” according to Mark O'Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“Corn looks strong,” he said. “More farmers are having issues with the hay crop; everything else is spotty.”

Tim Hileman of Kistaco vegetable farm and farm market along Route 56 in Kiski Township said he was spared the heavy rains.

“I turned on the TV one day and they had flooding in some places when I had sunshine all day,” he said.

“If there's anything I worry about,” Hileman said, “is the diseases caused by damp weather.”

And that's the concern of farmers and farm organizations throughout the state.

Late blight has been detected in Ohio and Indiana and Somerset counties, so the disease could already be in the region as its spores are carried on the wind.

“People need to pay attention to potatoes and tomatoes and to protect their crop,” Pollock said.

“One day, things can look fine,” he said. “Then, you see a symptom like blotchy infected areas on the leaf that will turn dark.”

William Troxell, executive secretary of Pennsylvania Vegetable Marketing and Research program, said that although the blight is not widespread at the moment, conditions are ripe for it.

“In general, Western Pennsylvania has a higher threat now than most of the rest of the state,” Troxell said.

But a stretch of dry weather could change all of that.

“Growers are being more vigilant and spraying fungicides to prevent late blight,” Troxell said.

O'Neill emphasizes that there's still a lot of the growing season left.

“There's still a lot of weather left to determine whether they have good year or a bad year,” he said.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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