Tomato farmers are reporting that this year’s crop is failing to produce much fruit.
“I don’t know if it is the climate change or what … all I know is the trees are in pretty good condition, but there is barely any fruit on the vines,” said Morris Copeland of Copeland Farms in High Rock in East End.
“Mostly all of the Cayman farmers have been having an issue with it,” said farmer Hamlin Stephenson. He thinks the weather and a virus are the reasons why the plants are not bearing fruit.
Patrick Panton of East End Farm and Gardens says he has lost more than 3,000 young to adult plants. “If, in fact, the issue is a virus, viruses are carried by insects and the most prominent ones on tomatoes in Cayman are carried by the white fly,” he said.
Mr. Panton said he noticed an increase in white flies this past summer, not only on his farm, but also on other residential and commercial properties where his business carried out landscaping.
“Why is that? Maybe it is because of the extended drought we’ve been having,” Mr. Panton said. Mr. Panton said he drops tomato seeds in the middle of August and September and harvests through November and mid May. Other farmers follow different times for planting and harvesting, he said.
The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, suggests the tomato is the crop most adversely affected by excessive heat. If daytime temperatures are over 90 degrees for several days, tomato flowers will drop off without setting fruit.
In Cayman, Mr. Stephenson said it’s not just the tomatoes. Almost all of his crops are being affected. For farmers, he said, “this can be a frustrating problem as a tomato plant with no flowers cannot produce fruit.” Typically, from late September to early February, Mr. Copeland said he would have already harvested nearly 20,000 pounds of tomatoes, but that just was not happening this year and the season was nearly gone.
“It is basically zero,” he said. “Last year, we had more than we could sell and we had to drop the price to get rid of it. There were tomatoes like crazy. [But] not this year.”
Mr. Copeland thinks he will not be planting any more tomatoes. “I’m thinking of moving to some other crops … it’s just not working out [and] it does not make sense to plant the trees if you not getting any fruits,” he said.
Marilyn Nasirun, who has a farm in High Rock, East End, thought she had just sprayed her plants too much.
“Everyone had a lower crop this year because I do not see much selling at the market. I did not realize it had something to do with climate change until I overheard other farmers talking,” she said.
“The weather this year has been particularly warm because of El Nino. Therefore, I am not surprised that we were seeing this condition in Cayman,” said Joel Walton of Plantation Farms.
This year, Mr. Walton said, he did not plant any tomatoes and could not say for sure what was the problem. However, he said if farmers are using seeds that were not specifically developed for warm nighttime temperatures, then they will have some problems.
“Most tomato plants are not specifically modified to bear in warm nights, and most tomato plants generally need the nighttime temperature of 75 degrees to bear. Even if it’s 75 degrees at night and the next day’s temperature gets above 87-88, and even though the plants put on buds the night before, they will all drop off and start the whole cycle again,” he said.
Mr. Stephenson agrees with Mr. Walton that every so often this problem occurs. He said the El Nino weather pattern is not only affecting tomatoes, but other fruit trees as well.
“If we think how warm the nights are, that’s the big problem, and because it is so warm, it is contributing to the virus on the fruit trees that we are having also,” Mr. Stephenson said.
Joseph Jackman, a former chief agricultural and veterinary officer, thinks one of the causes for the low tomato crop could be the temperature differential between cool nights and hot days.
Dr. Jackman said night temperatures have been dropping into the 70s and the daytime temperature is in the 80s. The result is that when the blossoms come out, the difference in temperature causes moisture to form between blossom layers, which causes the blossoms to drop off.
He suggested farmers use a spray called Blossom Set to help minimize blossom drop. Blossom Set spray is a commercially available liquid that helps tomato plants produce tomatoes from blossoms. It is often used when the nighttime temperature during blossom set is lower than optimal.