2011 Top Story No. 10: Not a good year to be a grower

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Juan Lopez harvests chardonnay grapes in Paumanok's Tuthill Lane vineyard this past October. They have to be hand-picked to remove the grapes that have rotted in the clusters.

It would be difficult for any year to top the pristine growing season of 2010, but even without such a stellar season for comparison, many farmers found 2011 to be a stinker.

From late blight on tomatoes to long rainy stretches that caused fruits and vegetables to rot to the wrath of Tropical Storm Irene, there was a lot for growers to complain about in 2011.

Winemakers were hit particularly hard, as their fruit was at a crucial point in the ripening process when Irene hit on Aug. 28.

At many vineyards, the tropical storm and rains that came afterward swelled thin-skinned white grapes to the bursting point, and in some cases led to a fungus known as “sour rot” that further damaged the fruit.

Pumpkin farmers also had a difficult year when their crops were hit by phythophora blight after weeks of wet weather following the tropical storm.

Vegetable specialist Sandra Menasha of Cornell University’s Long Island Horticultural Research and Extension Center in Baiting Hollow, said that wholesale pumpkin prices doubled regionally in mid-September, and that local growers, who tend to turn to farms in Pennsylvania when there is a shortage of North Fork pumpkins, had trouble finding replacements due to the widespread damage from the huge storm.

Late blight, which hits previously healthy-looking tomatoes, eggplant and potatoes well into the growing season and whose spores travel quickly during wet weather, was first spotted on the North Fork in early July, after spreading here from South Fork farms.

Late blight is the same fungus that caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.

“We consider it a community disease. Your one little patch of late blight could have a tremendous impact on others around you growing tomatoes and potatoes,” said Meg McGrath, associate professor of plant pathology and plant microbe biology at the Cornell Extension Center in Riverhead.

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