ST. MARYS – "It's worse than a plague," said Pete Braun of Braun's Farm in St. Marys regarding the destruction of crops caused by invading armyworms.
Braun, like many area farmers, is suffering firsthand from the devastation caused by the armyworm, or Pseudaleta unipuncta (Haworth), a native species widely distributed throughout the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains.
"These worms, they wiped me right out. I lost one field-- was nine acres-- and I went back there and all you seen was black in the field, they just mowed it down to nothing. All that was left was stems sticking up about seven to eight inches high. Last year I got a little over 400 bales out of it. This year I was lucky if I got 30. I don't know what I'm going to do for hay this year. They wiped me right out," Braun said.
Braun said his harvest typically begins around Memorial Day and nets him around 1,000 bales of hay. This year the armyworms left him with around 30 bales.
Braun said the damage done to his crops has cost him financially, with him having to turn away buyers and purchase hay to feed his cattle. He said he was unaware any problem existed until he received a call from a neighboring farmer telling him he needed to check his fields immediately and that "there was nothing left."
What Braun discovered upon first inspection was an unbelievable sight: Armyworms, each being roughly a half-inch in length, as far as the eye could see.
Braun said the fields of green were black instead, the color of the insects, which darken as they mature.
In addition, Braun said he could hear the insects eating en masse, the sound of which he likened to that of rainfall.
"They're just on top of each other. You go back there and it sounds like it's pouring down rain, all you hear is 'crunch, crunch, crunch.' I was so startled and shell-shocked to see it, I just couldn't believe it," he said.
Braun described the manner in which the armyworms moved from one field to the next, wiping out one after the other like a conquering military force.
"They all migrated to one big spot and they all walk in a big line, I've never seen nothing like it. They went up to the Timothy [hay] and orchard grass and once that was done, they went to another field and mowed that down to nothing and when that field is done, they'll hit the corn and outfields," Braun said.
While it is due to this characteristic pattern of movement, as Braun described, that the species came to be known as the armyworm, it is a bit of a misnomer, as the "worms" are actually in the caterpillar stage of a moth.
Braun said he had been told by other farmers that his best bet was to cut and salvage what crops he could and hope that in doing so the insect population would be starved.
Braun said the Timothy hay, which usually stands about three feet tall, was reduced to stems of no more than seven inches in height. Braun said the fuel used in cutting what remained was greater than the value of the harvest.
"It just made me feel sick. It costs more fuel oil to cut than was worth it. It wasn't even worthwhile cutting it, but you had to cut it down to kill the worms, to get the worms out," Braun said.
Pick up a copy of the Wednesday, June 27, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.