A pest has invaded farm fields throughout Jefferson County. Army worms – actually caterpillars that transform into moths – migrate up from the south every year to Northern New York. But this year a major outbreak of the worms is causing a widespread threat to crops, and big financial losses to some farmers.
Michael Hunter walks into the high grasses in a hedgerow next to a wheat field. He bends down to inspect the grass.
"Down here, you've got feeding on the edge of the leaf, which is a sign that an army worm was on this plant, chewing away. When they're done with these, in the worst case scenarios we've seen, there will be no leaves left on these grasses; it'll just be a field of stems – literally – and that's all we'll have."
Hunter is a field crops extension agent with Cornell Cooperative Extension. He's been spending the last couple of weeks in farm fields throughout Jefferson County, combating this invasion.
Insecticides can kill the pests, but only if they're caught early, before their biggest, hungriest stage.
Hunter says army worms come to the north country every year, but usually hitching a ride with them are a slew of natural predators – parasitic flies, viruses and fungal diseases – that keep their populations in check.
"This year, it just seems like the moths got a head start on 'em and that's what's happened," he says. "So we're starting to get a buildup of these parasitic flies and these fungal diseases now, but it's a little, you know, too little, too late right now to control what we've got going on now."
Hunter thinks the warm March is possibly to blame for the moths getting an early start on the trip north, ahead of their predators.
Ron Robbins owns Robbins Family Grain and is a partner in a children's attraction, Old McDonald's Farm, in Sackets Harbor. His major crops are corn and hay. He says he's never had a full-fledged outbreak of army worms – until this year.
"You know, you never know what Mother Nature's gonna throw at you," he says. "And with as many acres as we have to cover, we did make the decision to hire a scout this year, to just be in the field every day. And that's the best prevention, really, is to be on top of it."
That scout ended up saving Robbins tens of thousands of dollars by catching the army worm outbreak early, which allowed Robbins to quickly invest in insecticides to prevent losing his crops. Still, the outbreak wasn't without financial consequences – Robbins says the insecticide spraying cost him about $20,000.
The current outbreak of the pests should be over in about a week, but there's a chance of another outbreak – so Hunter says farmers should remain on alert for signs of damage.
"That's where scouting's going to come into play, because, you know, we know about the life cycle of them, that by the third week and fourth week of July in Jefferson County, we're going to have to have the scouts on alert that we've got to start checking our hayfields again, just to make sure that we don't have any more larva coming in," Hunter says.
A second outbreak would also be unusual this year. Normally the moths come north in one wave, but Hunter says this year there have been multiple migrations.
He says the worms' natural predators and diseases should have caught up with them by their second wave of development, but farmers should be on alert anyway, since this year's experience with army worms seems to be all about nasty surprises.