May 28, 2018
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Potato growers seek help from above to fight late blight

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — The rainy weather of the past few weeks has left Maine’s 55,000 acres of potato fields sodden. In addition to preventing growers from getting their tractors into those fields to spray and cultivate, the warm, wet conditions are creating a perfect environment for a virulent fungal disease known as potato late blight.

At an emergency meeting on Wednesday, members of the state’s Board of Pesticides Control voted to temporarily override existing regulations and issue licenses quickly to out-of-state aerial pesticide applicators.

“It’s all about the timing,” said Henry Jennings, director of the pesticides board. It can take a month or more for aerial sprayers from other states to go through the process of getting licensed in Maine, and by then, Jennings said, the opportunity may have passed to prevent late blight from decimating Maine’s $125 million potato crop.

Potato late blight was responsible for the massive crop failures in Ireland of the 1840s. Leaves of plants infected with the fungus turn black and the potatoes rot in the soil. Those tubers that appear sound enough to harvest typically rot in storage.

John Jemison, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service specialist in pest management and a member of the pesticides board, said late blight is one of a number of diseases that large-scale potato growers try to prevent each year through routine applications of fungicide.

The microscopic spores of the fungus can be harbored on plants such as tomatoes or strawberries and spread easily through the air, he said. Recent shipments of tomato plants to big-box stores from a grower in Alabama were recalled after finding they harbored the fungus.

For grower Tom Qualey of Sherman, who also serves on the pesticides board, this spring’s weather has been a near disaster. With his fields too wet to support the weight of his tractors and other equipment, he said, not only has he been unable to spray, he hasn’t even been able to “hill” his potatoes — that is, mound the soil up above the tips of the emerging plants. Hilling is an essential part of potato cultivation.

“I can’t get any work done,” Qualey said. “It’s too wet to get out there and do anything.”

Streamlining the process for bringing in out-of-state aerial sprayers while his tractors are mired in the fields offers him some hope of salvaging his crop, he said.

Aerial applications of agricultural chemicals are on the decline in Maine, in part because of the state’s restrictive regulations, which Jennings said are “among the most stringent in the country.” As a result, there are only two in-state companies that are licensed to spray from airplanes or helicopters. Two other companies in another state are certified to work in Maine, Jennings said, but the urgent situation facing Maine’s potato crop calls for more certified applicators.

Russell Libby, director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, raised concerns at the meeting regarding the emergency proposal. Maine’s regulations regarding aerial pesticide applications are protective, he said, and bypassing the more intensive training required by law could result in violations of rules regarding notification of neighbors and chemical drift.

Jennings said all pilot-applicators from other states would receive a thorough grounding in Maine regulations before the temporary licenses are issued. The emergency measure also would ensure reciprocal licensure in those states for Maine applicators.

With five of its seven members present in person or by phone, the board voted unanimously to support the emergency rulemaking. The changes likely will go into effect for 90 days beginning today.

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