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Talking Tomatoes

Posted: March 13, 2012

Tomato growing can be a tricky business. Several years ago late blight wiped out many home garden tomatoes, while commercial growers had to be extra vigilant in their crop protection programs in order to reach harvest. Every year is different and Mother Nature threw its weight around last summer. That greatly affected the commercial growers this time, more than home gardeners.

Excessive rainfall in central and eastern Pennsylvania hit right around the time that processing tomatoes were to be harvested. Ken Martin, director of agricultural operations for Furmano Foods, said that "it was the worst harvest in probably 90 years."  The gravity of Martin's statement is pretty heavy when you realize that Furmano's, a family operation, has been in existence for about 90 years. "Hurricane remnants showed up right around harvest time and flooding took out about 60 percent of the crop," said Martin. "Many fields that were not flooded by overflowing creeks and rivers were so saturated with rain that harvesting equipment just couldn't get in."

But as bad as the tomato season turned out for many growers, excitement and crowd attendance for the tomato session at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference was very high. Tomatoes are the one of the most important vegetable crops in Pennsylvania with an annual farm value of about $41 million. With so much money at stake, it is no wonder that farmers want to learn.

Martin, who has a very high stake in the success of the Pennsylvania tomato industry, has been program chair for the tomato session for about 15 years. Under his guidance, he has constructed a yearly program that draws huge interest from growers up and down the east coast. "I always try to include a topic that is forward looking," said Martin "and mix it with the basics such as fertility and disease issues."

Flooding is not a yearly event, but tomato diseases are, so the session started off with Penn State's Dr. Majid Foolad's effort to develop resistance to the two most destructive tomato diseases in Pennsylvania; early blight (EB) and late blight (LB).  He has identified EB and LB resistance in some wild species of tomatoes and is in the process of transferring those genes into some of his breeding lines. The hope is that his research will result in a reduced reliance of fungicides to control these two diseases.

I teach several online courses and workshops so I was interested in Philip Bogan's presentation on "Focus on Tomato." This is an effort of the Plant Management Network International to disseminate tomato information through monthly webcasts and online reference material. One of the attributes of this effort is that world renowned researchers and growers can present their information to a very wide audience. In addition, the information can be viewed at any time, say 2:00 a.m. More information can be viewed at < http://www.plantmanagementnetwork.org >.

Tomato fertility was covered when Steve Bogash covered his work with different types of plastic and their effect on potassium uptake. His main take-home message was to conduct tissue testing on a very regular basis in order to monitor plant nutrient levels.

The session ended with an overview of what to expect with disease pressure this growing season with Dr. Beth Gugino and herbicide issues in tomato rotations with Dr. David Mortensen, both of Penn State.