Bonnie GM Goes On The Record

Late Blight has taken the blogosphere by storm the last few weeks with rumors like the one alleging big box stores will be moving away from Bonnie Plants and to another vegetable supplier in 2010. Dennis Thomas, general manager at Bonnie Plants, says that’s not the case, and he clarified other reports after speaking Tuesday with Greenhouse Grower.

Q: Are there any new developments on the Late Blight front this week?

A: “I think we covered it in that press release [last week]. From the very beginning, we had erroneous information put in print about us. It sort of snowballed to where it is now. Late Blight has been around forever, and we’ve been around 91 years ourselves.

“The thing is our greenhouses are all over the country. Cornell [University] traced us to one source in the South. We’re not one source anywhere. We have 63 or 64 greenhouse operations everywhere, and five or six in the Northeast.”

Q: Like you said, original news reports stated Bonnie tomato plants were shipped from a Georgia facility to the Northeast and that Late Blight originated in Georgia. Can you clarify the report?

A: “It was assumed we shipped everything from Georgia. We ship nothing from Georgia to the Northeast. Our Georgia facility ships to Atlanta, Nashville and Charlotte.

“We ship a lot of plants from West Virginia to the Northeast. We’re right near Pittsburgh, and as soon as this news broke, we had West Virginia inspectors in our greenhouse. They found nothing. I have clean written reports from Pittsburgh and West Virginia, and New Jersey even wrote us a phyto[sanitary certificate] that allows you to ship plants from that facility for 14 days without any more inspections.

“We’ve had our inspectors walking all over the stores. One guy from a New York newspaper even called me and said, ‘You guys have a problem and I’m writing a story about it. I was in a Walmart with a Cornell plant pathologist.’ I said, ‘Are you sure it’s ours?’

“He went and looked, and it wasn’t a Bonnie Plant. There was no name on it.”

Q: When did you first hear about Late Blight at the box stores?

A: “It was June 27 before I got any word of it and it was July before I got any confirmation. The New York inspector called us and said, ‘I found some plants with symptoms.’ We cleaned up every plant in New York, even though it was July 3 before we got a positive report.

Q: Two University of Maine extension officials say 20 percent or more of Bonnie Plants tomatoes at box stores were infected with Late Blight and the symptoms indicate the disease was present for one or two weeks. Have you heard or read their report?

A: “To this day, we have not gotten a report that said we had [Late] Blight in Maine. I never heard a word from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts or New Jersey either. We asked inspectors to come down to New Jersey, and they inspected twice in five days – at our request both times. Everything was totally clean. The same thing happened in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

“Our business is tomato plants, and they just happen to be a host for Late Blight. When the weather is wet and cloudy, it increases the chance of Late Blight. This was probably the worst weather [the Northeast] had in 20 years.”

Q: What measures does Bonnie Plants take to combat disease like Late Blight?

A: “We spray copper and everything we can. We assume disease. Hundreds of millions of tomato plants are grown by Bonnie every year, and we have to assume disease. We spend a lot of money every year on that.”

Q: How does this particular Late Blight outbreak compare to other disease outbreaks you’ve seen in your 15 years with Bonnie Plants?

“This one stands out of course because it happened in the Northeast and lots of people live there.”

Q: What impact will the Late Blight outbreak have on Bonnie’s presence at the box stores in 2010?

A: “I hear rumors that big boxes are going to move to another supplier. No one has told us that. In fact, I’ve had only two complaints this year from gardeners through Walmart. I probably had 16 or 17 complaints from Lowe’s and 12 or 14 from Home Depot. I’m talking about the whole country. Overall, the complaints have been no more than any other year. When you plant $400 million worth of vegetables, you’re going to have some complaints.

“We’re going to continue to grow. Bonnie is going to continue to grow, expand, build greenhouses, add partners and add trucks. We’ve had 15 consecutive years worth of increases at the box stores. (Disease) is just something we all have to deal with as it comes along.”

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

A: “Bonnie Plants is still in business. We’re open for business, and we’re looking for growers to join our ranks and shore up some weak spots we might have. They can contact Tim Trussell at 800-345-3384.”

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7 comments on “Bonnie GM Goes On The Record

  1. Bonnie set the record somewhat bent

    Q: When did you first hear about Late Blight at the box stores?
    A: “It was June 27 before I got any word of it and it was July before I got any confirmation. The New York inspector called us and said, ‘I found some plants with symptoms.’ We cleaned up every plant in New York, even though it was July 3 before we got a positive report.

    Tim Trussel (National Sales Manager) sent a fax to the Maine Department of Agriculture on June 25 stating that Bonnie Plants had totally shut down the Maine operation and were pulling everything out of stores in Maine. People reportedly employed by Bonnie Plants were looking at late blighted plants in a Big Box store in Bangor, Maine and mentioned the sad state of the Maine greenhouse producing for Bonnie Plants.

    When the diseased plants were finally pulled from the big box stores, they were trucked back to the same greenhouse and placed in dumpsters; theoretically covered with plastic.

    Q: Two University of Maine extension officials say 20 percent or more of Bonnie Plants tomatoes at box stores were infected with Late Blight and the symptoms indicate the disease was present for one or two weeks. Have you heard or read their report?

    A: “To this day, we have not gotten a report that said we had [Late] Blight in Maine

    Oh come on – representatives from Bonnie Plants met with the Maine Commissioner of Agriculture regarding the late blight epidemic. What happened at that meeting? How long will this charade last?

    “Our business is tomato plants, and they just happen to be a host for Late Blight. When the weather is wet and cloudy, it increases the chance of Late Blight. This was probably the worst weather [the Northeast] had in 20 years.”

    I may be a simple country boy but I was under the impression that spontaneous generation was out of favor. The pathogen causing late blight needs to be present, despite the weather. It was well distributed and then the weather came.

    Q: How does this particular Late Blight outbreak compare to other disease outbreaks you’ve seen in your 15 years with Bonnie Plants?
    “This one stands out of course because it happened in the Northeast and lots of people live there.”

    According to the USDA 2008 estimates there are about 1.3 million people in Maine on just about 20 million acres. Many parts of the US may not think that is “lots of people.” The answer is as silly as because the leaves fall off trees. What sets this outbreak apart is the magnitude of the distribution, not because of population, tides, or traffic.

  2. Tracebacks – If Bonnie had released the plant source information immediately, the Georgia misunderstanding would not have occurred. We have yet to hear more than “We ship a lot of plants from West Virginia to the Northeast”. Surely Bonnie had this all figured out on day one or two. If it had been E. coli instead of P. infestans, governmental agencies would have started connecting the dots immediately. Stores with affected plants would be asked when and from where those and earlier plants had come. These growing stations would be asked for their records on dates, shipments, and the sources of all the seedlings which came in from the central production facilities. Those facilities would be asked which houses had supplied plants and when, what were the disease problems encountered, etc. The possible connections linking all the northeastern states but, apparently, none others would be teased out. In this way, any pattern in spread would be detected, or not. If Bonnie believes they are not responsible for the tomato blight epidemic, might they not request a thorough review of the situation by a state or federal agricultural department willing to look into it? An ag department will be more evenhanded than the lawyers, who also have a right to the information.
    Copper is about the least effective material labeled for late blight, as your experiences in Dresden and New Berlin show. It may have some value in reducing the bacterial speck problem. Given its lack of systemic activity, copper also fails to protect any foliage produced between sprays.
    We constantly hear that inspectors have found nothing. This is not the standard for plant health. The employees handling the crop, pinching leaves and discarding plants are the ones who find disease. They should be encouraged to report anything unusual and have it diagnosed. At that point, managers knowledgeable about the disease and its epidemiology need to make hard decisions. That Bonnie thinks sweet potato is a host of late blight makes you wonder about expertise. Once established in a field or greenhouse, blight is virtually impossible to eradicate, and this certainly can’t be done with copper and constant culling of leaves and plants. New infections are presymptomatic for nearly a week, long enough to be passed by inspectors and shipped off. A few new lesions can be easily missed in a greenhouse, and spore production occurs shortly after symptoms develop. The only sure method of eradicating blight is destroying a lot of plants, symptomatic, presymtomatic or still healthy. Anything less and you’re asking for an explosion.

  3. Update and Corrections on the Late Blight Situation in NY.

    Following my report on July 1, more information was obtained from home gardeners as they learned about late blight and brought plants to extension diagnostic labs. On Long Island, where I am located, some gardeners reported late blight started on plants purchased as early as mid-May.

    While late blight is not uncommon in the northeastern region of the US as a whole, occurring most years in some potato production areas, it is uncommon in other areas. This is the fifth time late blight has been found on Long Island during the 22 years that I have been the vegetable pathologist here. And it is the earliest and most widespread occurrence. Previous first diagnoses were on 5 July, 26 Aug, and 3 Oct in 2 years. The 5 July outbreak was in a commercial potato crop. The grower successfully managed late blight by destroying affected plants and applying fungicides that target the late blight pathogen. Other growers were immediately alerted so that they could adjust their fungicide programs, which normally would not include products specifically for late blight. No additional crops were found affected that year.

    Plants were not removed quickly from stores in all areas. On 13 July, 19 days after the first report of late blight on tomato plants at a store in NY, NYS Ag & Markets inspectors brought plants with late blight to me for diagnosis. Some of these with the Bonnie Plants label were severely affected suggesting the disease had been present for awhile.

    Under the current marketing system there is not the ability or knowledge (plus perhaps interest and concern) at the retail level for a store response which greatly exasperated the situation. The store manager I spoke to on the morning of Saturday 27 June said he could not do anything with the symptomatic plants since the store did not own them as they were being sold under consignment (other university/extension staff elsewhere got similar responses). I explained the seriousness of this disease, I left him with the write-up prepared for gardeners, and I showed him the symptoms although he really didn’t want to see them (when I asked if he wanted to see the symptoms he said ‘no not really’ to which I responded ‘you really should know what it is’ as I turned and led him to the next aisle where they were). I hoped that he would look at what I left and decide maybe this was something worth looking into before Monday morning when he said Bonnie Plants staff would be coming as usual to take care of the plants. I especially hoped there would be a decision to remove the plants considering it was finally a nice weekend that would likely bring out many gardeners. The most severely affected plants were gone when I returned Monday afternoon, but there remained some that should have had visible symptoms that morning based on the severity of the symptoms when I saw them. The clerk in the gardening center didn’t say anything about the condition of the plant, which was one of the worst, that I brought to the check-out to purchase (for a colleague investigating the pathogen strain(s) involved with the outbreak). She had a good opportunity to look it over as she turned the pot to find the bar code. There were still plants with late blight for sale in this store on 2 July. The response (hopefully) would have been much faster if what was being sold was something contaminated with a human pathogen. Fortunately late blight does not directly affect people and the pathogen is not like another plant pathogen, Aspergillus flavis, which produces a carcinogenic metabolite. However, late blight can have a tremendous impact. It is a very destructive disease that can cause complete crop loss, as is happening this year. The financial and emotional distress has been insurmountable for some growers.

  4. Bonnie set the record somewhat bent

    Q: When did you first hear about Late Blight at the box stores?
    A: “It was June 27 before I got any word of it and it was July before I got any confirmation. The New York inspector called us and said, ‘I found some plants with symptoms.’ We cleaned up every plant in New York, even though it was July 3 before we got a positive report.

    Tim Trussel (National Sales Manager) sent a fax to the Maine Department of Agriculture on June 25 stating that Bonnie Plants had totally shut down the Maine operation and were pulling everything out of stores in Maine. People reportedly employed by Bonnie Plants were looking at late blighted plants in a Big Box store in Bangor, Maine and mentioned the sad state of the Maine greenhouse producing for Bonnie Plants.

    When the diseased plants were finally pulled from the big box stores, they were trucked back to the same greenhouse and placed in dumpsters; theoretically covered with plastic.

    Q: Two University of Maine extension officials say 20 percent or more of Bonnie Plants tomatoes at box stores were infected with Late Blight and the symptoms indicate the disease was present for one or two weeks. Have you heard or read their report?

    A: “To this day, we have not gotten a report that said we had [Late] Blight in Maine

    Oh come on – representatives from Bonnie Plants met with the Maine Commissioner of Agriculture regarding the late blight epidemic. What happened at that meeting? How long will this charade last?

    “Our business is tomato plants, and they just happen to be a host for Late Blight. When the weather is wet and cloudy, it increases the chance of Late Blight. This was probably the worst weather [the Northeast] had in 20 years.”

    I may be a simple country boy but I was under the impression that spontaneous generation was out of favor. The pathogen causing late blight needs to be present, despite the weather. It was well distributed and then the weather came.

    Q: How does this particular Late Blight outbreak compare to other disease outbreaks you’ve seen in your 15 years with Bonnie Plants?
    “This one stands out of course because it happened in the Northeast and lots of people live there.”

    According to the USDA 2008 estimates there are about 1.3 million people in Maine on just about 20 million acres. Many parts of the US may not think that is “lots of people.” The answer is as silly as because the leaves fall off trees. What sets this outbreak apart is the magnitude of the distribution, not because of population, tides, or traffic.

  5. Tracebacks – If Bonnie had released the plant source information immediately, the Georgia misunderstanding would not have occurred. We have yet to hear more than “We ship a lot of plants from West Virginia to the Northeast”. Surely Bonnie had this all figured out on day one or two. If it had been E. coli instead of P. infestans, governmental agencies would have started connecting the dots immediately. Stores with affected plants would be asked when and from where those and earlier plants had come. These growing stations would be asked for their records on dates, shipments, and the sources of all the seedlings which came in from the central production facilities. Those facilities would be asked which houses had supplied plants and when, what were the disease problems encountered, etc. The possible connections linking all the northeastern states but, apparently, none others would be teased out. In this way, any pattern in spread would be detected, or not. If Bonnie believes they are not responsible for the tomato blight epidemic, might they not request a thorough review of the situation by a state or federal agricultural department willing to look into it? An ag department will be more evenhanded than the lawyers, who also have a right to the information.
    Copper is about the least effective material labeled for late blight, as your experiences in Dresden and New Berlin show. It may have some value in reducing the bacterial speck problem. Given its lack of systemic activity, copper also fails to protect any foliage produced between sprays.
    We constantly hear that inspectors have found nothing. This is not the standard for plant health. The employees handling the crop, pinching leaves and discarding plants are the ones who find disease. They should be encouraged to report anything unusual and have it diagnosed. At that point, managers knowledgeable about the disease and its epidemiology need to make hard decisions. That Bonnie thinks sweet potato is a host of late blight makes you wonder about expertise. Once established in a field or greenhouse, blight is virtually impossible to eradicate, and this certainly can’t be done with copper and constant culling of leaves and plants. New infections are presymptomatic for nearly a week, long enough to be passed by inspectors and shipped off. A few new lesions can be easily missed in a greenhouse, and spore production occurs shortly after symptoms develop. The only sure method of eradicating blight is destroying a lot of plants, symptomatic, presymtomatic or still healthy. Anything less and you’re asking for an explosion.

  6. Update and Corrections on the Late Blight Situation in NY.

    Following my report on July 1, more information was obtained from home gardeners as they learned about late blight and brought plants to extension diagnostic labs. On Long Island, where I am located, some gardeners reported late blight started on plants purchased as early as mid-May.

    While late blight is not uncommon in the northeastern region of the US as a whole, occurring most years in some potato production areas, it is uncommon in other areas. This is the fifth time late blight has been found on Long Island during the 22 years that I have been the vegetable pathologist here. And it is the earliest and most widespread occurrence. Previous first diagnoses were on 5 July, 26 Aug, and 3 Oct in 2 years. The 5 July outbreak was in a commercial potato crop. The grower successfully managed late blight by destroying affected plants and applying fungicides that target the late blight pathogen. Other growers were immediately alerted so that they could adjust their fungicide programs, which normally would not include products specifically for late blight. No additional crops were found affected that year.

    Plants were not removed quickly from stores in all areas. On 13 July, 19 days after the first report of late blight on tomato plants at a store in NY, NYS Ag & Markets inspectors brought plants with late blight to me for diagnosis. Some of these with the Bonnie Plants label were severely affected suggesting the disease had been present for awhile.

    Under the current marketing system there is not the ability or knowledge (plus perhaps interest and concern) at the retail level for a store response which greatly exasperated the situation. The store manager I spoke to on the morning of Saturday 27 June said he could not do anything with the symptomatic plants since the store did not own them as they were being sold under consignment (other university/extension staff elsewhere got similar responses). I explained the seriousness of this disease, I left him with the write-up prepared for gardeners, and I showed him the symptoms although he really didn’t want to see them (when I asked if he wanted to see the symptoms he said ‘no not really’ to which I responded ‘you really should know what it is’ as I turned and led him to the next aisle where they were). I hoped that he would look at what I left and decide maybe this was something worth looking into before Monday morning when he said Bonnie Plants staff would be coming as usual to take care of the plants. I especially hoped there would be a decision to remove the plants considering it was finally a nice weekend that would likely bring out many gardeners. The most severely affected plants were gone when I returned Monday afternoon, but there remained some that should have had visible symptoms that morning based on the severity of the symptoms when I saw them. The clerk in the gardening center didn’t say anything about the condition of the plant, which was one of the worst, that I brought to the check-out to purchase (for a colleague investigating the pathogen strain(s) involved with the outbreak). She had a good opportunity to look it over as she turned the pot to find the bar code. There were still plants with late blight for sale in this store on 2 July. The response (hopefully) would have been much faster if what was being sold was something contaminated with a human pathogen. Fortunately late blight does not directly affect people and the pathogen is not like another plant pathogen, Aspergillus flavis, which produces a carcinogenic metabolite. However, late blight can have a tremendous impact. It is a very destructive disease that can cause complete crop loss, as is happening this year. The financial and emotional distress has been insurmountable for some growers.

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