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Basil Blight Wipes Out Crop at N.H. Farm

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Folks at Dimond Hill Farm in Concord don’t mince words when talk turns to one of their most popular crops.

“We sell lots and lots and lots of basil every year,” said Jane Presby, a seventh-generation farmer who manages the property.

But the herb’s popularity didn’t keep Presby from deciding to scrap this year’s crop, which was suffering from a relatively new disease affecting basil crops across the country.

“You have to choose whether you’re going to spray it or not. We’re really moving to not spraying anything, if possible,” she said. “It was not a hard decision to say, ‘See you later.’ ”

The spray likely would have combated the downy mildew and could have saved the crop. A commitment to use as few chemicals as possible, especially on leafy greens, led Presby to turn under the plantings and start fresh next year.

“All farmers have a choice. You can use chemicals to try to control it, or, if it gets to a point where you really can’t control it, you let it go,” she said.

Downy mildew first surfaced in Florida in 2008, and agriculturists continue to study the disease — and ways to combat it. Infected leaves turn yellow with dark spores before turning brown and wilting, all before the growing season is over. Once infected, the basil isn’t marketable. “It looks like it’s dying all of a sudden, and for no reason. It’s all crinkled up,” said Ian McCluskey, farm manager at Dimond Hill.

The disease is expected to continue to affect basil crops, said Becky Sideman, a sustainable agriculture and vegetable specialist with the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension. Downy mildew is most likely spread through infected seed or wind-borne spores, she said.

“One way that researchers are trying to combat this disease is to learn more about how it is spread, and seed companies are working to develop varieties that are more resistant to the disease,” she said.

Another option is fungicides, which can be effective in suppressing the disease, but only if they are applied before symptoms start showing. Finding basil seed resistant to the mildew is a possibility, as is looking at different plots on more than 100 acres to grow the basil next year, Presby said.

This year’s weather hasn’t helped either, she said. The usual May planting was pushed back to June because of chilly temperatures, and a damp, cool summer isn’t ideal for basil, which thrives on sunlight and warmth. Harvesting usually begins in August and runs until the first frost of the season.

“People come in the fall before the frost. They buy it for the winter supply of basil to make spaghetti sauce and pestos,” Presby said. “It’s something that we practically give away because I plant way too much of it.”

Still, business was bustling Sunday morning, with customers snatching up the laundry list of other vegetables grown and harvested on site. As the farm’s sustainable practices have grown, so too has its offerings that include meats, cheese, snacks and coffee from local vendors.

The basil blight, buoyed by the decision to not use chemical sprays, has actually drawn attention to the farm’s practices, McCluskey said. Chemical sprays are applied to some crops to help with pest problems, but most crops are untouched.

“I’ve never been for heavy chemical use. Even the organic chemicals are kind of sketchy,” he said. “In some ways, even the certified organic ones aren’t much safer than the ones that aren’t.” As he knelt to inspect a few of the remaining basil leaves Sunday, he said he had no problems with the farm’s decision.

“It wasn’t a big deal to us. We had it in the ground long enough that we sold some of it. We probably made back our money on the seeds and labor,” McCluskey said.

“The only way to stop it was a chemical, and we didn’t want to do it.”

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