Farmers Battle Worsening Insect Crisis

Photo: J.N. Stuart/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A Mormon cricket perches on a bade of grass.

Hotter, drier summers mean grasshopper and Mormon cricket swarms are more frequent and more devastating to Oregon crops than ever, leading farmers and ranchers to collaborate with state and local governments to avoid being overrun.

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Bob Skinner, who owns Skinner Ranch in Jordan Valley, spent last summer walking over carpets of grasshoppers. The insects demolished his cattle’s grazing areas, and have, according to him, proven to be even more destructive than the Mormon crickets which have swarmed other areas of the state for the last three summers in a row.

This year the grasshoppers are back — and even bigger, and hungrier, than before.

“Last time the grasshoppers were here, they absolutely devastated the foliage,” Skinner tells Oregon Business. “They mowed down some places until they were just dirt. They’re so thick they can just knock the forage down to the ground so our cattle can’t get ahold of it. We turn that forage land into meat, so this is a huge deal for us.”

“I just don’t know how to estimate the damage because they destroyed everything. And they’re bigger, thicker, and so much worse this year,” says Skinner, who says the financial toll of the swarm has been “monumental” and too overwhelming for him to estimate fully.

According to 2009 research from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, hotter spring weather leads to larger and faster spawning cycles for grasshoppers and Mormon crickets — the colloquial name for shieldbacked katydids, which wreak havoc on crops during the years that they swarm.

“We haven’t seen swarms this bad since the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was probably a record-breaking swarm last year — 10 million out of 50 million acres we surveyed on public lands were infested. This year it might be the same or worse,” says Todd Adams, an entomologist for the grasshopper program at Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Adams says he has been working 70-hour weeks answering calls from farmers wanting to participate — and has overseen over 200 inquiries since June.

“You go out some places and it looks like the ground is literally moving. We’ve never seen it this bad for this long.”

Adams says there are signs the insect crisis will only get worse from here. Mormon crickets, for example, typically swarm — that is, their populations only get large enough for them to begin migrating in large groups — every eight years.

This summer marks the third year in a row the insects’ populations have exploded. But there is a potential silver lining to the fact that the problem is emerging as an ongoing issue, rather than a cyclical problem, Adams says.

“The problem was when the Mormon crickets were a cyclical problem the funding just sort of went away when the crickets went away, and it wasn’t there when it became a problem again,” says Adams. “If we are expecting a drier, warmer climate, this is going to be an every year thing.”

Last year, the Oregon Legislature allocated $5 million to survey the problem and create a Mormon cricket and grasshopper suppression program. An additional $1.2 million was approved for the program in June.

Under the program — in which Skinner is a participant — farmers and ranchers can ask the ODA to survey their land for infestation. If the surveyed area is found to be sufficiently infested, the department will recommend the aerial treatment process, and reimburse landowners up to 75% of the associated cost. Skinner was in the middle of spraying and treating his acerage when contacted for the interview.

The ODA’s recommended chemical treatment, called Dimilin, uses Diflubenzuron, which kills the insects by disrupting their natural molting process and is “not technically a poison,” according to Adams. While he admits that no chemical put into the field will be safe for everything, subsidized collaborations between farmers, ranchers and the ODA mean they will use the ODA’s recommended treatment more regularly, which, according to Adams, is the “most benign and environmentally friendly” treatment that is effective against the insects.

The treatment also stays in the area for four to five years. With enough coordination and data collection, chemicals and treatments could be developed to fight the bugs before their destructive swarms reach a critical mass, with as little harm to flora and fauna as possible.

“If we get enough money, enough people and enough coordination between private and public lands, that’s going to go a long way,” says Adams. “Coordinated efforts could help reduce these swarms and maybe it won’t have to be a problem every year.”


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