Published May 2nd, 2010
Stores like Walmart and Lowes are getting larger and more powerful, and for good reason. It’s a convenient, and sometimes cheaper, way to shop. Big chains allow consumers to do all their shopping under one roof; plants and potting soil go into the grocery cart along with medicines, clothing, Chinese-made tools and pet food.
As huge retail chain stores grab a bigger and bigger share of the garden center market, plant growers are consolidating and growing into mega-corporations right along with them. But this consolidation can have unintended consequences.
The latest trouble is the explosion of late blight. A fungus similar to the one that caused the Irish potato famine attacks potatoes and tomatoes. Late blight appears innocent enough at first — a few brown spots here, some lesions there — but it spreads fast. Although the fungus isn’t harmful to humans, it has devastating effects on tomatoes and potatoes grown outdoors. Plants that appear relatively healthy one day, can turn toxic within a few days.
According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with vegetable plants from huge greenhouse operations in the South, bought by consumers at large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. Once those infected starter plants were purchased and planted, they spread their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into home gardens, making 2009 the worst tomato harvest in memory.
GoodSeed Farm wasn’t affected at all; we buy all our seedling tomato plants from local growers. But we were intrigued and checked out the story. We found out that virtually every big-box store in the Cincinnati area buys their vegetable plants from just one company; mega-grower Bonnie Plant farm based in Union Springs, Alabama. Whether you buy plants from Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart or K-Mart they all come from one of Bonnie’s 68 growing locations. Bonnie has 13,000 accounts and 450 salespeople.
This degree of centralization invites the lightning spread of plant diseases. If late blight occurs in a small nursery it’s relatively easy to recognize, as straightforward as being able to see the plant, recognize its symptoms and isolate it before it has a chance to spread. This is less of an option on a farm that’s spread out over dozens of acres, nor is it likely once the plant gets to a large retailer. Last year’s tomato blight crisis provided yet one more argument for buying locally from local growers.