Torrential rain takes toll on tobacco, hay, vegetable crops

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com

   Will all this rain hurt the rhubarb? Not nearly as much as it has hurt soft fruits, vegetables and this year's hay and tobacco crops, according to Keith Hart, Carter County's agriculture extension agent.
   While each crop is different, he said, "The first thing that happens when you have this much moisture and this much humidity is the fungi and the bacteria build up in large quantities. We're seeing that in the gardens."
   Many people, when they see leaves yellowing on the vine, commonly label it "blight," a catch-all term for a variety of fungi and bacteria, Hart said.
   "You're going to see a lot of fungi on apples, peaches and plums. We're seeing tomato plants get heavy blight at this point. I saw a crop over at Boones Creek yesterday or the day before," Hart said Thursday. "There must have been 50 tomatoes in a row, and they were all hit.
   "When we talk about blight, there are about six different organisms that we're talking about. Early blight and late blight are the most common, but there's a whole array of others. The general fungicides we have sometimes are effective and sometimes aren't, depending on which fungi you're going against."
   Also not commonly known is that fungicide is a preventive measure. "The fungicide has to be on the leaf before the pathogen hits it. Once the fungus is there, all you're going to do is try to slow down the rate of spread," he said.
   Yellowing leaves could be an indication of blight, the soil being too wet and the plant's roots not taking up nutrients, or an indication that nitrogen in the soil has been used up, according to Hart. "It can be one of the three or a combination of all three. And that's what you see in a situation like we've got right now with this much rain."
   Hart recommended using an all-purpose fungicide such as Manzate 200, or Maneb -- the active ingredient in Manzate 200. Another one, Bravo, is good for tomatoes, he said. "But we're talking about spraying them on a seven-to-10 day interval.
   The main concern is to follow the directions on the label carefully and to stop spraying the recommended length of time before harvest. "Wash the fruit real well before eating it. That's just good common sense," he said.
   Gardeners also might want to side-dress some of their vegetable crops with nitrogen, but Hart cautioned: "Use a very, very little bit if you're using ammonium nitrate, because you can burn it up with nitrogen real quick."
   Weather conditions are ripe for increased fungus and bacteria activity, according to Hart. "Anytime the humidity is high, these fungi are multiplying at night and early in the morning."
   Elevation also is a factor. "We have a county that goes from 1,500 feet elevation to 3,500 feet," he said, making crop conditions at the lower elevation in Elizabethton totally different than it is in areas such as Elk Mills, Poga, Roan Mountain and the upper part of Stoney Creek.
   "They will have fog that sits in there until 11 o'clock to 1 o'clock in the afternoon some days, so their fungus pressure is much higher than somebody that's got a garden down here in Elizabethton. It's a different world."
   While native plants such as rhododendron and blue spruce tend to prosper in that environment, "if we take a tomato up there and put it out, we're going to fight spraying it every five to 10 days to keep the fungi off of it just to get a ripe tomato," Hart said.
   Pumpkins and other soft vine crops are susceptible to powdery mildew and downy mildew. "Powdery mildew, I see it massively on the dogwood trees right now. We've had that in past years, but this year seems to be worse," he said.
   There are some crops that tend to do fairly well in the rain and humidity, such as potatoes and turnips. "The biggest problem with potatoes will be your early blight and late blight, and they'll be subject to all of these funguses. The longer you can keep the vine up and green and growing, the more energy you're going to put into the tuber. The quicker they burn down from blight or fungi or an early frost, the less potato crop you have."
   Those whose spring gardens are not doing well might consider planting late beans, cabbage, or cold-weather crops which can handle the first frosts of fall without a great deal of stress. "The problem with planting this late in the year is usually the insect population builds up higher toward the end of summer, so the later you plant, the more insect pressure you've got," Hart said.
   This year's rain also has not done tobacco farmers any favors. "The tobacco crop basically is not taking off. I would rate it as fair," Hart said. In addition, "blue mold is out here everywhere, there's no question about that."
   Much of the field tobacco is not yet knee-high. But it gets even worse, according to Hart. "When you've got some of your best tobacco producers that are still trying to plant tobacco in July, that tells you things are really in a different situation."
   Another near-casualty is this year's hay crop. "It's a really mixed bag as far as forage for horses, cattle and other livestock," Hart said. "We've probably had the heaviest yield in the growth of grass that we've seen in 30 to 40 years. The problem has been that we don't get the curing conditions to get it up properly. We've seen some really good hay go up and we've seen some terrible hay go up. I mean, it's really bad."
   Round bales sitting on the ground are wicking up moisture from the earth. Once the hay is baled, it is recommended that the bales sit outside in the sun for two weeks "to let them go through a heat process, and then store them in a barn or shed," Hart said. "We can't even get that two weeks to get them where they ought to be.
   "The worst thing people can do is put these round bales under trees at the edge of a fence row, because they don't get to dry out. The trees keep it moist under there and we have more of a rotting problem. I see that continually."
   Feeding livestock this winter could be a problem despite the bumper crop of hay. "Last year, going into the winter, we didn't have any forage. People were desperate for feed for animals," Hart said. "This year, we're run over with it, but the quality of it is going to be very, very poor.
   "We may have enough protein, but I don't think we're going to have the energy in some of the crops we've got out here. We've got a cattle meeting Saturday night, and the main thing I'm going to do is encourage these folks to forge-test these bales. You auger into the bale and send that sample down to Nashville to the lab, and for $7 they tell you the protein and the energy in the feed, so then you'll know how much you need to supplement an animal."
   Horses need the highest quality feed while cattle can make do with rougher forages, he said.
   Most livestock owners are banking on this year's second cutting to carry them through the winter. "It's leafy, its bladey, it's got high protein, high energy in it. But if we don't have the dry weather to get it up," it too, will be poor quality, he said.