Mat-Su Valley farmers face potato blight

Posted: Friday, August 19, 2005

ANCHORAGE - Matanuska-Susitna area potato farmers are fighting an outbreak of a disease, known as "late blight," that has descended on their crops for the third time in the past decade.

Parts of three commercial potato farms in the Valley are known to be affected, officials said. Plants from a half-dozen Palmer-area backyard gardens are also being tested for the disease, said state Agriculture Division Director Larry DeVilbiss.

One commercial grower has blight in more than half his field and the two other growers have only small truck-sized spots of infected plants, DeVilbiss said. He would not name the farms.

Ben Vanderweele, of VanderWeele Farms near Palmer, said he sprayed his fields with fungicide last week after finding blight on his plants. VanderWeele was also affected by a blight in 1998.

"I wouldn't say I was ready for it," VanderWeele said. "I'm never ready. But it wasn't that big of shock."

DeVilbiss has asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation for permission to spray fungicides from the air. Farmers need the agency's approval for aerial spraying, said Kim Stricklan, DEC's pesticide program manager.

The disease was first detected in the Mat-Su in 1995 and again in 1998.

Potatoes bring in about $2 million a year for Alaska growers, making them a small part of farming in the state. Still, they are one of the largest field crops and seed potatoes are one of Alaska's few farm exports.

The blight is the same disease that in the mid-19th century caused a devastating potato famine in Ireland. It does not directly threaten human health, but can affect tomatoes, eggplant and hot peppers.

The fungus thrives in cool, wet weather and is spread by wind and water.

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