August 12, 2014

Armyworm invasion is for the birds

They covered the ground until it was black.  They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit of trees.  Nothing green remained on the tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.”  --Exodus 10:13 (NIV)

     Saturday afternoon, I was walking when the small white pickup rolled to a stop.  I was smiling.  The driver and the fellow riding shotgun weren’t.  My friend behind the wheel said, “I guess you’ve figured out the bad news.”  
According to UGA Extension Agent Mark Crosby, the armyworm 
cycle starts with ash-gray moths laying eggs in hayfields and pastures.  
The eggs hatch within four days.  The black-headed larvae then 
drop to the ground to chew on vegetation.  Within two to three weeks, 
the worms are fully developed and then burrow into the soil.  
And, according to Crosby, after 10 to 14 days, the moths emerge 
and the cycle continues.  He says, “Three to four generations of fall 
armyworms can occur during one summer season.” 
     “No, what?”
     Nodding toward the new sorghum field on the hill, he said, “Up there.”
     Our neighbor had my attention.  We had partnered on liming the soil for him to grow sorghum, to be followed by a crop of alfalfa.  Two days earlier, the bright green crop was chest high, waving in the wind.  But by chance, driving by on the asphalt, he noticed a light green spot.  Seeing the tell-tale sign, the seasoned Smithonia farmer wheeled around for a closer look.
     Sure enough, armyworms had invaded and were in overdrive, gnawing on 35 acres.  With no time to waste, he weighed two options:
1) Spray to kill the pests.
2) Cut the crop and quickly bale it.
     He chose cutting.  But when the stalks and leaves hit the Oglethorpe County red clay, the armyworms hadn’t lost their appetites.  Chomp, chomp, chomp.  The tractor and baler didn’t need to leave the shed.  In less than 48 hours, the worms had eaten a potential harvest that would have taken 50 cows three weeks to consume.
     What next?
     Everybody scrambled to see where the invaders were headed. We needed an action plan to win the war.  Since it’s my wife’s farm, I called Pam.  “You need to come see this,” I said.  As we stood in a gravel trail separating the sorghum field and a stretch of fescue that slopes into the lake, there they were—thousands of them, crawling toward their next feast.
     While spraying was being arranged, I started doing what I could—stomping.  If people could have seen me, they might have mistaken me for a gray-headed farmer, buck dancing in his field.  I know it was foolish, but every time my size-12 boot struck the ground, I figured: “Well, there’s another that won’t do damage.”

     I couldn’t help but think about Moses’ conversation with the Lord in Exodus and the plague of locusts that swarmed and devoured Egypt’s vegetation.  “Surely,” I thought, “we haven’t brought this disaster upon ourselves, have we?”  After 15 minutes of smashing ravenous crawlers, I pulled out my iPhone for battlefield strategy against armyworms.   
     That’s when I heard the birds.  The sky was filled with wings.  My mind flashed to Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie, The Birds.  Rather than panic, I said, “Thank you, Lord.  I hope they came hungry.”  I’ve never tasted an armyworm.  But the birds must consider them a delicacy.  The pecking was furious, doing much more good than my silly stomping.
     Meanwhile, our team of neighbors and helpers was swarming the area, scouting for armyworm signs.  In my research, I learned that armyworms like millet.  A few hundred yards across the lake is a gorgeous field of emerald-green millet.  We hoped it would ring the dinner-time bell for doves in the fall and not invite the dreaded armyworms.  A 500-gallon sprayer laid down a barricade there and on other parts of the farm.
     Between alert neighbors, birds and science, we think we’ve won the armyworm war—this time.

     But, please, Lord, don’t send those locusts.