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Disease takes toll

Tomato farmers in Drew County, Ark., will plant their crops about April 1, the usual planting date, assuming they can get into the fields first and work them, says county agent Don Wiley with the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas.

The tomato seedlings are in cups sitting in hothouses, but “it's too wet to get the fields plowed and ready,” Wiley said. He said Drew County has had an abundance of rain recently.

“Farmers can't put out fertilizers. And they need to get the land bedded, fumigated and covered with plastic mulch. Once it dries out, it won't take long, but we have to have dry weather.”

Wiley said the county's farmers have planted 350 to 400 acres of tomatoes in the last few years, but he expects them to plant only about 200 to 225 acres this year.

The agent said each year farmers start the season with a lot of hope. They pray spotted wilt virus won't hit them. The disease spread by thrips.

“The disease has been devastating the last couple of years. Farmers are taking big losses on their crops. Their yields haven't been good, and the prices haven't been good. Unless we can get some resistance to this disease, it's going to be a while before this industry comes back.”

There are farmers who haven't made any profit in a while, Wiley said. “These are young guys with families, and they're having to look at other opportunities.” Several have abandoned the farm and gotten full-time jobs elsewhere.

Farmers hope that freezing weather in December helped control the thrips problem.

“We haven't had the cold weather in previous years, and we've been seeing big numbers of thrips early in the season.”

Farmers need help, because nothing else seems to control “this little villain,” according to Wiley. “It's the numbers that get you. You can kill them, but there are so many out there. If you kill a half million, there's another half million waiting on you. We haven't had much effect with sprays. Even if you kill one, if it has bitten the plant, it's going to be lost.”

Wiley said farmers and Extension personnel believe the ultimate solution is to develop lines with genetic resistance to the viral infection. A resistant line would go a long way in reestablishing the faltering tomato industry in southeast Arkansas.

“There are some promising lines coming on,” Wiley said. “There's BXN 444 and a couple of other lines that look promising. Farmers will be trying out those lines. They don't yield like our traditional varieties, but they survive.”

The insect and low prices cost farmers millions of dollars last year. Farmers raised 1,500 acres of tomatoes in 2000 with a value of $3.9 million, compared to $14.1 million in 1999.

Even if they can get the thrips problem under control, the farmers' worries won't be over.

Farmers typically plant 4,000 tomato seedlings per acre. Later, the plants have to be staked and tied. At harvest “you can't pick a ripe tomato with a machine. It all has to be done by hand,” Wiley said.

“There's no way they could do it without migrant labor. This industry needs migrant workers. Farmers have a lot of concerns about increasing government regulations related to these workers. They have to adapt to changes, but sometimes changes come hard.”

Lamar James is an Extension Communications Specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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