AGRICULTURE

Fearing a new dust bowl

Dale Eisler June 24 1985
AGRICULTURE

Fearing a new dust bowl

Dale Eisler June 24 1985

Fearing a new dust bowl

AGRICULTURE

Dale Eisler

In Saskatchewan farmers asked the Canadian Armed Forces to fly 28 tons of pesticide from Buffalo, N.Y., to Regina. In Alberta the government arranged a special Air Canada delivery of 23 tons of pesticides, and Manitoba officials began spraying pesticides along roads and in ditches last week. The reason for the swift succession of events: a grasshopper attack on young

grain crops that may cause the worst devastation since the dust bowl days of the 1930s. By week’s end, as the grasshoppers swarmed over the Prairie provinces, Saskatchewan had ordered a total of 565 tons of pesticides from the United States and France to meet the heavy demand. Said Michael Hegan, executive director of the Saskatchewan Emergency Measures Organization: “If we had not brought chemical supplies into the province, we would not have had an agricultural problem—we would have had a welfare problem.”

Indeed, provincial government officials warned last year, after grasshoppers destroyed $30 million worth of wheat, barley, rye and oats in Saskatchewan alone, that a larger problem might arise this year. And across the Prairies an autumn drought provided ideal dry conditions for grasshoppers to lay eggs, which began hatching this spring. Now, some experts predict that $90 million worth of grain could be destroyed. Al-

ready, farmers in Saskatchewan and Alberta have reported infestations as high as 1,500 grasshoppers per square metre. Declared Alberta agriculture ministry spokesman James Armet: “We consider 100 hoppers a metre to be of concern, so this is very serious.”

Last week’s cool, damp weather on the Prairies provided governments with a breathing space in which to develop a strategy for combatting the insects. For

one thing, Alberta announced a $6.6million program to pay for half of the pesticides used by municipalities and farmers, including the spraying of roadsides and Indian reserves. And Saskatchewan officials said that their province would cover half of the cost of spraying public areas, while Manitoba will spend far more than the $100,000 spent on spraying last year. Still, officials estimate that in some areas as many as 70 per cent of the insects have not yet hatched. As a result, some farmers say that they may already have lost the war against grasshoppers.

But other farmers are convinced that with proper spraying the crops can be saved. Bengough, Sask., farmer Keith Holt, for one, has sprayed more than a ton of pesticides over 1,000 acres seeded with wheat and barley in his attempts to prevent grasshoppers swarming in nearby pastures from invading his land and destroying his crop. Said Holt: “In the areas where they are hatching, it is

black with grasshoppers. I have never seen anything like it.”

Holt’s farm is in southern Saskatchewan, an area particularly harmed by last year’s drought. Holt says that he had expected to harvest 26,500 bushels of wheat and barley last year but he collected only 10,100 bushels—less than 10 bushels of wheat per acre, compared to the usual 25. Now, with the best spring rainfall in the past six years, the 40-year-old farmer said that he hopes to recover his losses with a good crop this fall—if he can stop the grasshoppers. To that end, he has spent $1,500 on insecticide in the past two weeks alone. Said Holt: “It is still too early to know if I am winning the battle, but at least I am holding my own.”

Still, 125 km east, at his 1,600-acre farm near Hitchcock, Sask., John Bachorcik said that he is far less certain he will be able to save his crop of spring wheat. Said Bachorcik: “It is only human nature to want to save your crops, but there is only so much you can do. And cool, wet weather will not help us now. It is too late for that. The grasshoppers just go to sleep, then wake up and start eating.” But Bachorcik has not conceded defeat and has already spent $1,400 to save his crops, spraying around his fields with Sevin XLR. That insecticide can kill grasshoppers seven days after a single treatment.

Most farmers are using a pesticide called Furadan. It kills grasshoppers on contact at a cost of about $2.30 an acre for a single spraying—less than half the price of a treatment with Sevin XLR. Bachorcik and Holt wear coveralls and respirators while using pesticides, but both men say they worry that they might be risking their own health by using chemical poisons to save their crops. Declared Holt: “I wonder what the effects are going to be down the road.” Added Lloyd Harris, a Saskatchewan government entomologist: “Most insecticides are fairly toxic—in fact, small amounts of certain chemicals can be absorbed through the skin, possibly causing nausea, vomiting and headaches. But if they are handled correctly, we do not see many problems. They occur when farmers are careless and do not buy a respirator or are not covered or do not use goggles.”

As the farmers prepare for a long, hot grasshopper-filled summer, David Smith, senior entomologist with the Manitoba agriculture ministry, said that this year’s infestation might be the peak of a 10to 12-year cycle. But Bachorcik, for one, does not want to rely on natural cycles and such occasional measures as emergency airlifts to combat the insects. He added, “Either we develop a universal policy involving all levels of government or we are going to have one hell of a mess.”