Field tomato growersfrom Florida to Texas say a new virus-resistant variety developed by vegetable breeders at Texas A&M University may provide a glimmer of hope for an industry that has been decimated by a raging virus complex spread by the dreaded whitefly.

The disease outbreak has been so intense that it has destroyed virtually all field tomato production in the vegetable-rich Rio Grande Valley and has challenged growers from Florida to Arizona who have been losing ground to Canadian and Mexican tomato imports in recent years.

“Research on the development of the T-5 tomato variety came about as a result of a need for a tomato that could stand up to a new virus strain spread by whiteflies into warm climate areas of the U.S. back around 2002,” says Dr. Kevin Crosby, a vegetable breeder and member of the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M.

“This new strain of viruses decimated South Texas tomatoes to the point that growers largely abandoned what was once very successful operations, opening the door for tomatoes from across the border.”

Crosby says the new virus strain originated in the Middle East, then spread from Florida to Mexico and then came back to Texas by whiteflies.

Once the plants were infectedwith the virus, leaves would turn yellow and curl, eventually killing the plant at early stages of development. In the Rio Grande Valley, nearly 40,000 acres of field tomato production have fallen victim to the virus.

Ray Prewett, executive vice president of the Texas Vegetable Association at Mission, Texas, says at one time there were as many as 100 cannery operations in the Valley — “so much so that at one time growers there boasted of feeding America’s soldiers in World War II. The canneries mass-produced long shelf life food products that were carried into Europe and the Pacific regions, and many soldiers survived by eating those products.”

By the end of the last century the number of canneries had declined, but the Valley remained a viable growing region for tomatoes and processing operations until early last decade when the new virus strain arrived.

“And it’s not just the Southwest that has struggled with the whitefly and this new virus complex. Florida growers have been battling the disease for over a decade and they also have suffered declining production numbers as a result, and Arizona growers are now dealing with the whitefly and virus problems as well,” Crosby says.