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R.I.P. for Pumpkins: Curly Top Ravages Torrance County Fields

MORIARTY - After munching on chile in southern New Mexico, swarms of beet leafhoppers took a bite out of Halloween profits for pumpkin growers in Torrance County.

Farm manager Andy Otis, left, and Warren Metzger, Cooperative Extension Service program director in Torrance County, examine a curly top-infected pumpkin plant at Ness Farms south of Moriarty. Beet leafhoppers attacked Torrance County pumpkins in August, infecting most vines with curly top. The virus stunts plant growth and prevents fruit from developing. (10/06/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Kevin Robinson-Avila)

The leafhoppers infected at least 50 percent of jack-o'-lantern vines with curly top virus in August. The virus stunts plant growth and prevents fruit from developing, said Gene Winn, agricultural agent with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service in Torrance County.

"The disease was pretty well scattered throughout the Valley," Winn said. "Growers have had problems with curly top in the past, but on a much smaller scale. This year it took growers by surprise, and by the time they realized what was happening it was too late to do anything."

Andy Otis, who manages 560 acres of crops for Ness Farms south of Moriarty, said the curly top virus ruined nearly 60 percent of the Ness pumpkin patch.

"It was looking good until early August, and then all of a sudden the vines turned yellow and the fruit started dropping off the plants," said Otis, who manages 40 acres of pumpkins. "We lost more than half the crop almost overnight."

A formidable army of beet leafhoppers destroyed about 20 percent of the chile harvest in southern New Mexico this season, said Stephanie Walker, an NMSU vegetable specialist. After feasting on chile, the insects began migrating north in search of greener fields.

"In early August, a swarm of hungry leafhoppers descended on pumpkin patches in the Estancia Valley," Walker said. "These are migrating bugs and they tend to move from south to north during the summer. So after they left the chile crops, they went north to wreak havoc on pumpkin fields."

When beet leafhoppers feed on plants, they inject fluids that cause curly top. The disease stunts growth by hardening stems and leaves. That prevents plants from producing fruits and vegetables, Walker said.

"Leafhoppers normally attack chile peppers, sugar beets, tomatoes and other green vegetables," Walker said. "Pumpkins are also attractive to them, but it's unusual for the insects to attack pumpkin patches countywide like this. Pumpkin growers just drew the short stick this year."

Eugene Ness of Ness Farms said the invasion was so rapid it took him off guard.

"I thought something in the seed was affecting the crop because the bugs were so little I never saw them," Ness said. "I didn't think it was curly top until NMSU tested the infected plants and confirmed it."

Adam Aday, who grows 100 acres of pumpkins in Estancia, said curly top affected about 30 acres at his farm.

"I lost nearly one-third of the crop," Aday said. "I knew what it was right away because we've had trouble with leafhoppers before, but it was much worse this year."

A hail storm in early September compounded problems for growers. At Aday's farm, hail damaged most pumpkins that weren't infected by curly top.

"In a good year I can get about 5 million pounds of pumpkins, but between curly top and hail, I'll be lucky to harvest 100,000 pounds this year," Aday said. "I can get about 6 or 7 cents a pound for pumpkins, so I'm taking a pretty big hit this season."

Only about 45 New Mexico farms grow pumpkins commercially, with about 3,200 acres under production statewide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Torrance, Luna and Doņa Ana counties are the top pumpkin producers.

Not all pumpkin varieties are susceptible to curly top. Larger types, particularly Howden pumpkins used for jack-o'-lanterns, are most vulnerable and were hardest hit by the virus, Walker said. Sweet pumpkins used in pies and other small ornamental varieties were less affected.

Although crops such as corn and pinto beans were unaffected, the virus nearly wiped out green beans in Torrance County, and it damaged most tomato crops.

"The leafhoppers killed about half our tomato and green bean plants," said Ive Schwebach of Schwebach Farms in Moriarty. "I've never seen such a swarm of leafhoppers. They were just all over the corn, but fortunately that crop is resilient."

Given the widespread damage, growers will likely be more on their toes next season, said Gary Thomas of Thomas Chemical and Fertilizer in Estancia.

"We need to get an early warning system in place so that next time, as soon as leafhoppers appear down south or elsewhere, farmers will know to check their fields," Thomas said. "The only way to prevent curly top is to pull weeds that attract them and spray for bugs before the infestation starts."