August 19, 2011

Our Plight, The Blight

May I please take this opportunity to vent? Thank you.
A conversation sprang up after market last Saturday. An older fellow that is friends with my Dad was visiting. I was in the process of making a tomato sandwich with one of our tomatoes and some delicious bread a friend had made for us while I waited on my next sandwich stuffing of eggplant and peppers to grill.  He commented on how good that tomato looked. I asked if he wanted to take some home with him. My dad laughed and said, “He’s got five-thousand bushels in his back yard.”  It turns out one of the biggest tomato growers in South Carolina (I won’t mention names, though perhaps I should) has a field full right next door to this fellow. He gets his tomatoes free, so he declined my offer. I did not take offense.
The conversation moved on to fertilization. “How do you fertilize your tomatoes?” I told him.  “Well what’s in that organic fertilizer?”  Well there’s greensand and wood ash for potassium, rock phosphate and bone meal for phosphorous, composted manures for nitrogen. “So what’s the difference in that stuff and me going and buying a bag of triple 17?”  I tell him that for one they are naturally derived and not processed or synthesized with chemicals or petroleum by-products. And then I explain how commercial synthetic fertilizers are water soluble and that when you get a big downpour half of what you put on your field likely washes away into streams, rivers and the ocean where it is disastrous to aquatic life. I mentioned algae blooms, poisoned well waters, and the “dead zones” in the Gulf where there is no life due to man-made pollutants and fertilizer run-off.  This all seemed foreign to him. “Well I’ve heard that it’s good to spread fertilizer in your pond?”  I had never heard of this and he couldn’t say for what reason anyone may want to do this.

And then it really got interesting. He lowers his voice as if the wrong person might be close and says, “Now don’t repeat this…”  … Which I never agreed to and given I’m not telling you names I don’t feel guilty repeating this. I feel it almost a duty. He goes on, “…That pond down below my house turned yellow like chicken broth this year. And then a couple weeks later all the fish I had stocked it with a few years ago were floating on the top. I went around and scooped them out and buried them so they wouldn’t stink. Then I called up [tomato farmer] and told him about it. He was real concerned and got on the phone and called up some water specialist and told him what he’d been using on his tomatoes and the guy said that it was all safe and shouldn’t have killed them fish.”  My dad asked if he was going to re-stock the fish. “I’ll wait till after tomato season is over, I reckon.”
Hmmm… Mighty peculiar. No one came out and tested the water. Was a call even made? There are a lot of questions there actually. If a call had been made surely the water specialist knew the hazards of copper sulfate run-off, the concoction that most all tomato producers use to control blight.  It is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life.  And then there is the fertilizer run-off that we all know is bad in high doses. Not the first incident like this, no doubt.
A guy at market was talking to me about blight on tomatoes, which anyone who grows in the South has encountered. He said that the conventional growers he’d talked to said they spray copper sulfate every 4-5 days and always immediately right after a rain.  Do the consequences even register on their conscious or is it total ignorance?  Maybe they take my mom's approach. "Thomas, If it is legal it can't be bad for you, honey."  It is insane to me that this stuff is legal or at the very least not treated with the same restrictions as a controlled substance. There is even an OMRI (Organic Materials Research Institute) approved version of this stuff that has many of the same hazards. When the cautions on the bag take up more space than the directions, I tend to be wary and skeptical. WE DO NOT USE IT, even though technically we could and still call it organic!  
There are alternatives. We have actually had pretty good results spraying raw goats’ milk. As far as I can understand, the probiotics in the raw milk out-compete the blight fungus and/or boost the microbial activity in the soil, strengthening the plant’s resistance to the blight.  Worm tea will supposedly do the same, though there are attempts to make this practice illegal because of the potential threat of salmonella. We also use mychorizzal inoculants when planting. This is basically fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with the tomato plants. They bring nutrients to the roots and make them more available thus creating a stronger plant that is more disease resistant. These methods may not be as sure fire as copper sulfate but if it means the difference between poisoning streams and ponds should there be any question? 
We have pretty much come to terms with the blight. We rotate plantings so they don’t pick it up from last years’ crop and we use methods described above. Eventually the plants get blight anyway but it is after we’ve harvested a great crop so we let them take there natural decline until they are so bad they need to be removed from the field and composted. No fish were harmed in the process.
I hear people say things like, “Well it’s much more important to us that the food is local than it being organic. Sometimes you just have to spray to keep from losing a crop.”  Local is important to us too, obviously. Statements like that make me question whether people truly understand all the implications of using pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides.  The way I see it, if the option is there for a quick fix by spraying your problems with something toxic then it has a high potential to be over used and abused. On the other hand, if it is not an option you will be forced to find ecologically friendly alternatives that are more sustainable for the long term. Common sense tells me that if it kills insects and it kills vegetation, is a known carcinogen and the warnings on the pack regard skin and respiratory protection, then it can’t be good for you to ingest in any quantity. And frankly we have a lot of bugs and weeds that we like to have around. Pesticides and herbicides are mostly non-discriminatory and take them all out of the picture.
I don’t want to come off as “high and mighty.”  I understand the lure of using the quick fix. It is extremely frustrating to see all of your hard work go down with the bugs, or disease, to weed invasion, or the deer, among many others. And we don’t, by any means, have all the alternative methods down pat.  In fleeting bouts of upset I have desired to get drastic with a sprayer or a flame thrower. It takes a lot of reservation sometimes, but we manage to deal with it responsibly, for our own peace of mind and for yours.
We have good friends that grow conventionally and they are great people. I don't lay the bulk of the blame on the farmers. They are doing what they understand to be safe and effective.  In some cases the farmer should educate themselves better rather than taking that approach that if it's legal it must be ok.  In most cases the small scale farmer will spray when they see it as necessary to the crops survival (which is relatively subjective to the individual, I might add). There are a lot of exceptions but for the most part the very large farms are the ones that abuse and spray everything, whether it’s needed or not.
I see the biggest problem to be the companies that profit over their toxic products.  The way this stuff is marketed, I can understand how the unsuspicious farmer that needs a control desperately (as well as the consumer) can be convinced that this stuff isn’t really that bad. I have seen attempts to downplay pesticides on tv and in handouts many times. But when you really look closely at the sponsors and donators of the media you'll see conflicts of interest. 

And then there is always the argument for feeding the world.  But at what cost?  Killing the rest of it?  Personally I’m no where near convinced that the world cannot be fed organically, as they claim. Yes, it would take a lot of re-structuring and a lot more, smaller farms and people willing to work on farms, which could be the preface for an argument for boosting employment if I wanted to take that route. But I don’t. And it may take more people gardening in their spare time for themselves and with neighbors and families and doing more preserving and cooking on their own. A massive effort towards sustainability, for sure, but isn’t it about time?

I could go on, as you know, and get sidetracked on any number of tangents.  The bottom line is that I am morally opposed to broad spectrum herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides because they can be abused, they are non-discriminatory, and they are blatantly dangerous to life when they build up into large doses.  And there are alternatives that, yes,  may require a little more planning and ingenuity but will better us in the long run. So I believe it’s the only logical approach.  Please. Debate me if I’m wrong or with other perspectives.