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The baskets of fresh, locally grown tomatoes in Western New York markets and supermarkets last month were deceiving.

They were survivors.

In late August and September, parts of Western New York, especially Chautauqua and Erie counties and, to a lesser degree, Niagara County, were struck by the worst epidemic on record here of late blight, a fungus associated with the mid 19th-century Irish potato famine.

"It seems as though a plume of the highly infectious spores, maybe from plants brought into the area, blew northeast up from Chautauqua County and destroyed late-harvested tomatoes, some in the fields and some in baskets awaiting last-minute ripening," said Michael Orfanides, a Cornell Cooperative Extension Service Lake Plains vegetable specialist based in East Aurora.

"In August and September, Erie and Chautauqua counties seemed like the late blight tomato capital of the world," he said.

"From southern Erie County locations like Boston, Brant, North Collins and Eden north to Amherst, late-harvested tomatoes were destroyed," he said. "People saw them turn bronze and black overnight. I feel sorry for the 19th-century Irish. The stench must have been awful."

Farmers in Clarence and the Middleport area of Niagara County also lost entire fields of potatoes, sources said.

Putting a cash value on losses is difficult, because of the spotty nature of the destruction and uncertainties about planted acreages, officials said.

Perhaps the largest single loss was incurred by the A. Sam & Sons Produce Co. of Dunkirk, which this year grew about 130 acres of tomatoes, all originally destined for fresh market sale.

"Now, we can't get anything for many of them. We have been hurt. We did not know our fields had late blight until it was too late," said Charles Sam. "Earlier, We had not sprayed for late blight because everyone around here seemed clean, and you can't spray for everything. We lost a big part of our crop. Tomatoes that look good break down quickly.

"Last year, we had a fine crop, but the price was too low. This year, tomatoes brought a good price, but we lost much of our crop. Because of disease problems, labor shortages, regulations and weather worries, we are not sure that we will grow tomatoes next year," he added.

During the growing season, potato and tomato growers were advised to maintain a weekly -- and costly -- spray schedule to prevent the spores from infecting their fields.

"Spraying must be done properly," Orfanides said. "Once the infection starts, it cannot be halted."

Paul Zittel of Eden said that his farm grew three rows of tomatoes to supply the family farm market.

"In three days, they were wiped out," he said. "I could not believe it."

William Fry, a Cornell plant pathologist and a late-blight authority, said that a strain of the phytophthora infestans fungus he calls "U.S. 17" is especially deadly to tomatoes. The strain called "U.S. 8" does more damage to potatoes, Fry added.

Early and mid-season tomatoes escaped the U.S. 17 fungus strain, as did potatoes whose vines were killed before late August, Orfanides said. Little or no late blight has been reported in the many Allegany and Wyoming County potato fields.

Fry said that growers in California, a major source of processed tomato products, have been battling U.S 17 infestations for five or six years. Florida growers also have had late blight outbreaks in their tomato fields.

Fry said that the chance for another late blight tomato outbreak next year, if not certain, is "pretty good" because of the widespread presence of the fungus.

Winter freeze will kill tomato plant remnants and lingering late blight spores, but the danger that spores on stored potatoes or those over-wintering in the ground or in piles or cull potatoes is strong.

"Growers should bury piles of cull potatoes, and they should dig up potatoes left in the ground and expose them to the cold that kills the green tubers and the spores that live on them," Orfanides said.

"The danger is that infected potatoes that lie under 6 or more inches of soil will not freeze and sprout again next spring, starting a new round of late blight," he added.

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