Renewable Farming

We can be thankful our Midwest doesn’t have a plague of locusts anymore

Farmers in the word’s “Cradle of Civilization” regions still suffer from devastating desert locust swarms. Fortunately for Midwest and Plains growers, such fearful invasions are now only echoes from the Laura Ingals Wilder novel Little House on the Prairie.

July 24, 2020  By Jerry Carlson — I was born in the drought of 1936, amid the cradle of the Great Depression. I recall locust infestations through my youngest years on the farm in Southwest Iowa. Big, yellow, voracious grasshoppers stripped everything green; even chomped the bark from cedar fence posts. 

Source: FAO “Locust Watch” update as of July 21, 2020

Now, locust swarms are typically constrained to broad regions from the Horn of Africa through northern India. United Nations agencies and national governments spend millions of dollars in aerial spraying to decimate the swarms. The past two years have been horrendous for invasions of desert locusts across nations shown in the nearby map. They’ve stripped entire farming regions. Intense spraying programs are barely coping, as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports at this link. The toxic side effects of repeated insecticide use are as yet uncounted. International agencies are appealing for contributions to intensify spraying, as this World Grain report describes.

Update July 31: Chinese authorities have dispatched 57,000 workers to help combat a locust invasion in Yunan Province of southwest China. The locusts have damaged some 22,240 acres and threaten much wider damage in August. 

I recall seeing hordes of yellow grasshoppers shredding corn and soybeans in Page and Freemont County in the early 1940s. The flying insects would bite my unprotected skin. My Dad and Uncle Frank were patient. Didn’t spray them. “They’ll die out eventually,” Dad said. 

Just as he fields were peppered yellow with hoppers, usually in late July, the insects would gradually became lethargic. They stopped feeding and eventually dropped from the leaves — dead. I inspected a few dead ones and found tiny red spider mites under their wings — a parasite deadly only to the hopper predators. Nature had run its course. 

Now, the American Great Plains and Western Corn Belt are farmed with soil conservation practices far better than in the Dust Bowl era. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, continuous wheat and lack of moisture conservation gave the U.S. version of the desert locust a vast, dry breeding ground in the Plains. Since then, improved soil conservation has made a massive reduction in American locust attacks.

Perhaps, working with nature this way offers instruction to help deal with other “plagues” we face today.