So where did the Late Blight diseasing up Bonnie Plants in box stores throughout the Northeastern United States originate? In a press release last week, Bonnie Plants officials say Late Blight could not have originated at its facilities because the disease was confirmed at retail June 23 and not at one of Bonnie Plants’ facilities until two weeks later.
The argument is sound in that the Late Blight discovery at retail preceded the discovery at a Bonnie Plants facility in New Berlin, N.Y. But who’s to say the disease wasn’t rampant in New Berlin or elsewhere for weeks before a discovery was made at retail?
For the record, Bonnie Plants General Manager Dennis Thomas says Bonnie has yet to receive a report that says Late Blight infected Bonnie Plants tomatoes in Maine. And, Thomas adds, there have been no reports of Late Blight in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts or New Jersey.
The verdict is not yet determined in the Bonnie Plants-Late Blight case–and an origin may indeed never be determined–but two University of Maine extension service members sounded off on our comments board last week with new information.
Dr. Dave Lambert, a plant pathologist at the University of Maine, has some input on the developing story. Lambert says the facts in the Bonnie Plants-Late Blight case from Maine are as follows:
–One week before Late Blight was discovered, tomato plants were shipped from Bonnie’s local supplier in Dresden, Maine, to stores across the state.
–Immediately after the report from New Berlin, N.Y., blight experts in Maine started checking and found 20 percent or more of the Bonnie tomatoes were diseased at every chain store visited. Tomatoes from other suppliers were clean.
–The range of symptoms indicated infections one to two weeks old, demonstrating disease had occurred in the source greenhouse.
–At this point, no Late Blight has been found anywhere else in Maine, despite widespread and intensive scouting by the Maine extension service and the potato industry.
–The Late Blight strain isolated from these plants and from subsequent secondary outbreaks in Central and Southern Maine is US14, rarely found in Maine but common this year in the Southern United States.
–Subsequent scouting around Dresden, Maine, detected the very beginnings of an outbreak in small organic and other market farms. It was evident these infections were neither old enough nor abundant enough to be the source of the greenhouse problem. The area has no recent history of Late Blight, but a number of potato and tomato crops have been lost there in the subsequent three weeks.
A Ralstonia Comparison
The bottom line, Lambert says, is Bonnie Plants is trying to put a lot of daylight between itself and the Northeastern Late Blight epidemic.
“If Bonnie was so confident of its local suppliers,” he says, “why would one of its out-of-state representatives have been quoted in a local store just after the initial outbreak saying, ‘You ought to call your Department of Agriculture and have that place (Dresden) shut down?’
Just think back to the Ralstonia outbreak a few years ago, Lambert adds, and this developing story is following right along that one’s lines.
“Circling the wagons and claiming that (Late Blight) wasn’t spread by tomato transplants may be lawyers’ advice, but it isn’t helpful to anyone in the long run,” Lambert says of Bonnie’s response to the disease’s origin. “State agencies know better, chain stores should and the tens of thousands of Alabama AFC farm families who will share in this misfortune deserve a better accounting.”
Steve Johnson, a crops specialist at the University of Maine, also chimed in on the Late Blight story on our comments board. Johnson says one greenhouse in Maine receives Bonnie plants and grows them for delivery to the box stores.
Johnson can’t confirm all 42 box stores Bonnie supplies in Maine were carrying infected tomatoes, but he says all box stores surveyed had infected tomato plants from Bonnie Plants. Johnson also shared some information on Late Blight’s effect on potatoes in Maine.
“July 8 was the first report of late blight on potatoes from a garden well removed form commercial potato production,” he says. “The potatoes were next to the infected tomatoes in the garden. On July 11, Late Blight was discovered in field potatoes and tomatoes. The epidemic rapidly escalated.
“This first field late blight find is about five miles from the one greenhouse in Maine that received Bonnie plants and grew them out for delivery to the big box stores. This first infected potato field is operated by [a] second generation potato farmer that has never had Late Blight on his farm before.
“In my 20 years, I have never known this area to have Late Blight.”