Where Are All the Tomatoes?

Too much rain, too little sun curtail the backyard harvests

Nessa Morse has worked her way through her garden in New Jersey to the tomato plants. Her "Big Boys" are easily three feet tall with lots of vines and leaves. But, where there should be ripening fruit, there are "only ugly little green hard things."

Unfortunately, Ms. Morse is not alone this summer. Those backyard gardens, usually bursting with juicy red tomatoes, are a suburban disappointment. The cool and wet June and July is delaying one of summer's lip-smacking enjoyments.

"Unfortunately, there has just been too much rain," says Doug LeComte, chief of the agricultural weather section at the United States Department of Agriculture. Since June 1, the northeast region has watched as 10 to 11 inches of rain has pelted down. In July, the Hudson Valley had twice its normal rainfall.

With the rains have come insects, eagerly chomping their way though the tomato patch or anything else that looks like lunch. Some backyard gardeners are complaining about problems with their pepper plants as well. And only yesterday the USDA blamed the cool summer and rainy spring for a disappointing corn crop that is likely to raise food prices later this year.

Agricultural experts say the weather may have encouraged a potato blight strain, called late blight. (Yes, potatoes, eggplants and tomatoes are all related.) Thought to have originated from Mexico, it is spreading through rows of backyard tomatoes.

"It is very much a problem in wet weather," says Bob Mungari, director of the division of plant industry at the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets in Albany.

Mr. Mungari, who knows something about vegetables, suggests sending samples of blighted tomato plants to county agricultural agents, since it tends to stay around the garden for years unless knocked out with chemicals.

Backyard gardens may have also missed out on a key ingredient in tomato production - pollination. In New York State, a parasitic mite and two severe winters back to back have halved the honeybee population. Mungari says honeybees pollinate about 90 percent of crops.

"A lot of people have told me they haven't seen honeybees in their gardens this year," he says.

Even professional tomato growers have had a tough time. As she weighs produce at the I&G Farm in Jackson, N.J., cashier Debby Wolf says the tomatoes are three weeks to a month late. "My own tomatoes are still green on the vine," she laments.

With tomato shortages cropping up in June and July, wholesale prices squirted to $35 for a 25-pound box, also known as a bushel. "They were expensive and in short supply," says Phil Neary, general manager of the New Jersey Tomato Council, Cooperative Association in Cedarville. The second planting, Mr. Neary, says is much better. Prices have now declined to $14 to $16 per bushel compared with $10 to $12 per bushel last year. Higher vegetable prices showed up in last month's inflation reports.

Aside from higher prices, many consumers are complaining that the tomatoes are mushy or don't have the right taste. "Some of them have had thick skins," agrees Matilde Serrano, assistant manager of the greenhouse at Sickles Farms in Little Silver, N.J.

If August turns hot and steamy, gardeners might start to see some red in their gardens. An Indian summer might help, too. But, it's probably too late for others. Not far from Morse's house, her mother, Betsy, reluctantly shows a visitor some tomato-less plants.

"I don't think I'll get any this year," she laments. It is likely to be a common complaint this summer.

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