Somewhere in this country people are doing it well, and truth be known, I now work at a conscientious, mindful organic farm (organizing volunteers and a farmers’ market) with vast biodiversity, animals and plants, that manages to pull enough crop to keep me in organic tomatoes. However, despite what appears to the contrary, what seemed illogical to me not so long ago, in a climate that never gets too cold for cultivating vegetables, growing tomatoes in Guatemala comes with an interesting set of challenges.
Last week, I overheard Alex, the owner of Caoba Farms, located in Antigua Guatemala, explaining to a guest on the farm how it was difficult to grow tomatoes here. Coincidentally, I had just a very similar conversation with recently acquired acquaintance, Neal, a fellow permaculture practitioner here in Guatemala, only currently residing a couple hours northwest of us, in Lake Atitlan in the the village Tzununa at Atitlan Organics. I mentioned all of these names and locations only because both places offer volunteering opportunities and workshops for folks, just in case anyone is currently in or soon heading to Guatemala.
The Incident with Neal
Getting back to tomatoes, my wife Emma and I were talking with Neal, our new permaculture buddy about tomatoes, which he told us are apparently nearly impossible to grow where we are. We were shocked to hear him say it, as we’d had a heap of volunteer tomatoes sprouting out of our gardens, compost being the source. Just the day before, we’d been admiring them, noticing that our first harvest was but a few moondances away. Neal, visiting the hotel — Earth Lodge, which also accepts volunteers for construction and reception work—where we were living at the time had to see this for himself.
We took him to the garden bed, what was actually the remnants of a raised lettuce bed, where the action was happening. And, in the span of just couple of days, the plants had gotten a bit ragged, the leaves going black, the bottoms of the tomatoes we’d been anxiously awaiting, turning the same hue. Neal, an energetic and hands-on type, immediately jumped in the bed and started to remove the questionable plants, warning us to get them off of the site. Don’t compost them. Just get them out there quickly and permanently.
It’s a late-showing blight. Neal, an Irish bloke, knew from his experience in Guatemala (and from a bit of national history, the potato famine) just how destructive this disease can be. All is looking well, ready for harvesting with wee bit more time, and then suddenly the bottom—nearly literally—falls out. Phytophthora infestans is the official name of the pathogen, and it’s nasty, staying in the soil and hanging around in composts. Reproduction happens via infected plant tissue, and it spreads around in a hurry.
Further Explanation with Alex
So, when I heard Alex explaining tomatoes at the farm last week, my ears immediately zeroed in to learn what he had to say. For the most part, Caoba Farms grows a small variety of tomato, a la Roma—or plum—tomatoes; however, occasionally he puts some beautiful heirloom varieties on the shelf for folks to buy. They get snapped up as they are very unique down here in Guatemala, and they, of course, are delicious and flavorful and juicy and all the things we want tomatoes to be. He was managing to do it, so I was curious how.
Much the same as Neal, Alex cited the blight as a serious problem. Essentially, what Neal had told me was that, when it appeared, which was much more often than not, the soil was contaminated for at least the next two years. That is, one must wait two years before planting tomatoes again in the area, as they will definitely have blight. It is particularly difficult to detect because all looks wonderful until just before harvest time. These two reasons are exactly why the potato famine was so devastating: The first year was bad then the following year was even worse, the disease still being in the ground. All looked well until it was too late to take a different route.
Alex confirmed these ideas, but he offered another piece of information that I found interesting: Because our climate never reaches freezing temperature, a wet/dry tropical location with a subtropical temperature drop at nights (due to altitude), the ground never gets a chance to go dormant and cleanse itself. And, actually, our local temperature and humidity is basically the ideal for the blight spreading, which happens via wind and rain. At Caoba, the tomatoes are grown in sealed greenhouses for this reason.
In more temperate areas, Phytophthora infestans requires a living host to survive the seasonal changes, which is why potatoes have been especially problematic, as they can overwinter in the soil and pop back up next spring. That said, tomato blight is no stranger to temperate climates, either.
Putting Practice into the Mix
I’m sure to many growers, running into diseases like this is old news, but for Emma and me, we’ve been so experimental and exponential with how we plant that no one vegetable or problem has slowed us down. We use what works well, replicate it, and don’t miss a beat, never yet lingering over why something doesn’t grow so much as relishing what does. In this way, we’ve managed to create areas with 50-plus different edibles in them, mostly flourishing and cut our loses with what wasn’t taking. We accepted what has come easily and gone the way of abundance.
But, all the while, we have certainly bought tomatoes, a food that is so delicious and ingrained into our food system that it’s difficult to ignore. I grew up loving tomato sandwiches in the early summer and fall, and though moving progressively towards a diet more based on perennial food sources, the tomato has certainly never departed our table. In other words, eventually, as we nearer self-sufficient, tomatoes will be on the garden wish list.
Here in Guatemala, despite the disease, the weather is certainly well-suited for them to grow year-round. Alex has managed to take advantage by isolating them from the disease, which on a highly productive polyculture but ultimately small (just a few acres) farm, has meant a very limited tomato crop. It’s a possibility. Without a doubt, I’ll be hitting Alex up for some seeds, and hopefully, with a little of his guidance and Emma’s green thumb, I’ll be able to keep myself in tomatoes, at least enough for our little family of two. But, it sounds like a challenge awaits.
A Perennial Solution
Technically, tomatoes are a perennial plant, and they will actually grow that way here. But, there is another great option floating around the area: tomate de arbol (Solanum betaceum and/or Cyphomandra betacea), a perennial tree with a fruit known—unsurprisingly—as the tree tomato or tamarillo. The tree grows quickly and up to five meters high, producing around a year after germination and upwards of forty pounds of fruit annually thereafter, reaching peak production by year four. It’s not exactly a tomato, but I wouldn’t kick them off the farm. Alex also has these growing, as does Shad, the owner of the farm on which Neal is currently working. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to take another tip from these guys.
Header Photo: Homegrown Cherry Tomatoes (Courtesy of OakleyOriginals)