RONAN — The $15 million-a-year seed potato crop in northwestern Montana's Lake County faces a serious threat from a disease brought on by cool, damp weather, officials say.
Lake County extension agent Jack Stivers said a storm last summer likely blew in the spores that can cause "potato blight," a highly destructive fungal disease.
"With the type of spring we've had, it's more than likely to rear its ugly head," Stivers told the Missoulian. "Ultimately, it just rots potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. In some cases, it's almost like sudden death syndrome."
Dan Lake of Lake Seed Inc. says he's spent an extra $123,000 to protect seed potato crops he sells to customers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.
"Once you get it, you can't eliminate it," Lake said. "You can't prune it out, and nothing you put on it makes it go away. Once you've got it, it's all done."
Making the problem potentially worse are weather conditions.
"If you get a bunch of spores from infected plants in the right kind of weather, which is cool, damp and wet, even fungicides can't stop it," Lake said.
Officials are asking area residents with backyard vegetable gardens to be vigilant for signs of the disease and apply fungicides.
"We want home gardeners to partner with us, and watch for blight in their gardens," Lake said. "Applying the fungicides needed to prevent it is not complicated. Any place that sells lawn care and garden stuff has them, and they're easily applied. If you're an organic grower, there are organic products that are effective too."
Potato blight is the same disease that caused famine in Ireland in the 1840s, leading about 1.7 million Irish immigrants to flee their homeland and come to the United States.
Lake said the last time the disease arrived in Lake County was 1995.
"It didn't affect us that bad because it came at the end of the season, when most of us had already started our vine kill," Lake said. "This past summer it arrived in mid-August, at a very critical time for all of us."
He said some potato farmers lost their entire crop, while others lost 20 to 30 percent.
"Depending on the location of the field, some parts were hit really hard," Lake said.