At this point in the growing season many farmers and gardeners are enjoying harvesting and eating the bounty of their tomato crop. It is truly a joy to eat a fresh garden tomato and experience the complex flavors resulting from picking vine-ripened tomatoes from your own garden!

Some of you are harvesting so many tomatoes right now that you have enough to share with your friends and neighbors and bottle for later in the year. However, not all of us have experienced the same level of success this year. Despite all the hard work put in, many farmers and gardeners lost their tomato crops to a variety of pests and diseases. This experience can be very discouraging and disheartening. I know the feeling well because, for the past two years in a row, while the rest of the crops on the farm flourished, we lost our tomato crop to a plant virus.

A huge amount of work and resources go into getting tomatoes from seed to harvest, and after three months of nurturing, if your plants suddenly get sick and die, it can feel devastating. I am writing this article to share some of my experiences and what we have learned here on the farm at the Centre for Training and Innovation (CTI) in Rock Sound, Eleuthera, over the past few months to try and spare you from this negative experience.

Plant viruses operate in a very similar manner to animal viruses, but they are specific to plants. Plant viruses are not a health concern for humans, even though they can be lethal to plants. Like animal viruses, plant viruses are very specific about which plants they infect, and each virus has a particular effect on the growth of the infected plant. Since viruses cannot reproduce on their own, they need a host to reproduce and move around. Plant viruses can be spread through seeds and through touch; however, most commonly, they are spread by insects traveling from plant to plant.

TOMATO YELLOW LEAF CURL VIRUS (TYCLV)

This year, our tomato crop in Eleuthera was infected with the Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus, and we had to pull the entire crop out not too long after it had started to finally produce tomatoes. I know several farmers in Eleuthera and New Providence who also lost their crops and cited the very same symptoms.

Our tomato crop was sown in late September, and the seedlings were moved into the Growhouse in late October once they were about 10-12 inches tall. We carefully tended our plants, watering, fertilizing, and pruning them weekly, and they developed into beautiful plants that gave the first ripe fruit in early January.

Everything seemed to be going great, and we were excited to have a beautiful harvest of tomatoes; however, one day in early January, we noticed 1 or 2 plants in the crop that did not look normal. The top leaves of these plants were slightly yellow instead of green, the leaves appeared stunted and the leaves were slightly cupped instead of flat. These symptoms only show up in the youngest set of leaves, so it was tempting to ignore the symptoms as most of the plant looked perfectly healthy.

However, past experience with this virus led us to take action and remove the infected plants and dispose of them in the local dump to try and get the virus as far away as possible from our healthy crop. Week after week, more and more plants would show the symptoms, and by late February, most of our crop was infected and had to be completely removed and dumped.

Since this was the second time we lost a crop to this virus, I was adamant that we would find out precisely what virus was causing this destruction on our farm and potentially on other farms around the island and country.

I am grateful for the assistance of the team in the Plant Protection Unit at The Bahamas Agricultural Health & Food Safety Authority, which provided resources and guidance in identifying this virus. This important government organization based in Nassau protects foods, plants, and animals against threats to food safety and quality, public health, environmental health, and economic sustainability. Learning that the Tomato Yellow Leaf Curl Virus (TYLCV) was the culprit was critical. Knowing

the virus’s identity allowed us to take action to fight it and prevent it in future crops. This virus is common throughout the Caribbean and South Florida and, at some point, made it into The Bahamas.

How does the virus spread?

This virus is spread by a tiny fly called the Silverleaf Whitefly (Bemesia Tabaci). When this fly travels from plant to plant, feeding on the leaves, it spreads the virus to each plant it bites. The virus will not spread through your garden or farm unless whiteflies are in your crop feeding on the tomato plants.

Silverleaf Whitefly, adults and larvae on the underside of a leaf

How to control the Silverleaf Whitefly?

The good news is that if you can control this fly, you will prevent the virus from spreading. However, your control must be very thorough because even a few flies can devastate your crop.

· Keep your plants healthy and strong; healthy plants are less attractive to whiteflies.

· Eliminate all weeds around your garden or field because whiteflies will feed and reproduce on many weeds.

· Plant certain herbs and flowers around your tomato crop to repel whiteflies.

· Do not use broad-spectrum pesticides that will kill all insects, including the beneficial insects that like to eat whiteflies.

· Clean your property well after each crop and immediately dispose of all plant material.

· Scout your plants every week, look carefully underneath the leaves for any signs of whiteflies, and take action immediately if you find signs of whiteflies.

· Use yellow sticky traps to attract and trap whiteflies.

· Many organic biopesticides, such as Botanigard, MoltX, SuffoilX, Insecticidal soap, and Pyganic, can help control whitefly populations. These products should be used preventatively before the population becomes out of control.

· As a last resort, various chemical pesticides, such as Admire, can be used to control whiteflies. Please be sure to follow all instructions on the pesticide label, as many pesticides can be lethal to bees.

Virus-resistant tomato varieties…

Because this disease is so devastating, over the past years, many tomato breeders have released varieties of tomatoes that are specifically resistant to TYLCV. By using varieties of tomatoes that are resistant to this virus, you dramatically increase your chances of success in growing tomatoes. I strongly recommend that you test out some varieties of tomatoes that are bred specifically for the tropics and have TYLCV resistance. Look at the description of the seed variety and you will see the list of diseases that the variety has resistance against.

Several varieties of beefsteak tomatoes that have been bred for production in the south with TYLCV resistance are Jolene, Champion II, Grand Marshall, Tygress, Skyway, and Tycoon. I trust that by sharing our experience with this virus and the knowledge we have gained regarding controlling the whitefly and selecting varieties that are resistant to this disease, your success as a tomato grower will increase. Together, we can produce more delicious, healthy tomatoes here in The Bahamas and decrease our dependence on imported vegetables, one crop at a time.

About One Eleuthera Foundation

Founded in 2012, One Eleuthera Foundation is a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to transforming our local island communities into thriving, self-sufficient ecosystems. We do this by focusing on five key areas: economic ownership, meaningful educational advancement, pathways to wellness, and environmentally sustainable communities centered around our island’s unique cultural identity. We run a number of social enterprises, including CTI, our vocational school; the Retreat Hotel, a training hotel for hospitality students; and our farm and Cooling House, which trains future farmers in the best sustainability and food production practices. Through OEF’s consistent dedicated efforts, the tenacity and resourcefulness of our legacy community, and the support of donors and partners, we are creating change in Eleuthera.