Late blight affects some County potato farmers amid rainy weather

Posted Aug. 11, 2011, at 6:17 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 11, 2011, at 6:51 p.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The rainy spring and summer have put a damper on the Aroostook County potato growing season, but the head of the Maine Potato Board said Wednesday that the industry remains optimistic about this year’s crop.

Don Flannery, executive director of the board, said that one consequence of the rainy weather has been the discovery of late blight in central Aroostook.

According to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, late blight has been found in Bridgewater, Caribou, Fort Fairfield, Limestone and Caswell. It is not widespread, but fields are being sprayed with protective fungicides, according to the Cooperative Extension.

Late blight, which is caused by the fungus Phytophthora infestans, infects plants in the nightshade family such as potatoes and tomatoes and is most destructive during cool, moist weather. The plant’s leaves form black lesions, affected potatoes rot in the soil, and tubers appearing hardy enough to harvest usually rot in storage. The disease can destroy an entire crop rapidly because the associated fungus produces numerous spores that can be carried long distances through the air or transported by infected plants. Late blight was the cause of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.

“We have found late blight, but it was found early,” Flannery said on Wednesday. “That is a good thing, because the earlier you find it, the better. Where it has been found, growers have taken corrective measures. This has not stopped the spread of it completely, and the weather isn’t helping, because we can’t get out to spray and get things dried up. But this is by no means an epidemic, and growers and industry officials are watching the fields closely.”

This growing season has been hampered by severe weather, including three tornadoes that went through the area in early June. Heavy rains associated with the tornadoes destroyed crops in some fields and washed away the topsoil in many. Once the topsoil is gone, the productive yield of acreage is reduced dramatically and the value of the land can plummet. Subsequent erosion created deep gullies in a number of fields, and the rain and resulting damage also suffocated seeds.

In one instance, a potato field on Woodland Center Road in Caribou became so flooded the runoff spilled over onto the roadway. Growers in the Caribou and Fort Fairfield areas were most heavily affected.

U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe successfully secured $400,000 from the Farm Services Agency at the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Emergency Conservation Program last month to help 50 farmers whose farms were damaged.

Along with the damage from the tornadoes, the growing season has been affected by above-average rainfall. Last month was the wettest July recorded in northern Maine, according to the National Weather Service in Caribou.

Meteorologists said that Caribou got 7.93 inches of rain last month, breaking the old record of 6.83 inches set in 1957. June was also a record setter, with 9.03 inches.

By comparison, Bangor had 2.9 inches of rain for the month, which is about 35 percent below normal.

Despite the rain, Flannery said he still believes there is a “healthy crop” out there waiting to be harvested in the coming weeks.

“Right now, we are waiting for the latest stretch of rainy weather to break and watching to see what happens over the next two weeks as we move toward the harvest season,” he said on Wednesday. “We hope that the weather won’t continue and impact the harvesting process.”

Maine potato farmers planted nearly 55,000 acres in 2010, with a yield of 29,000 pounds per acre, for a harvest of 1.6 billion pounds with a value of $159.2 million.

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