It’s a long time before harvest.
Dad’s caution invariably followed comments about how good crops looked in early July. A farmer’s son should have known better than to jinx a potential bumper crop.
Corn and soybeans in southern Minnesota look great when compared to soggy 2019, when many fields were planted late and heavy rains drowned corn and soybeans.
Dad, like so many others before crop insurance became mandatory for those who borrowed to plant, debated about purchasing hail coverage because of premium cost. Most often, he acquired coverage because isolated hail was common enough when the atmosphere clashed between hot air and cold.
We ran out of great fortune one summer in the 1960s when the purple sky yielded hail so thick that a scoop shovel was needed to open the milk house door. Corn and beans were shredded and so were hopes for a good harvest.
It was heartbreaking, a feeling that those who lost crops to grasshoppers in the 1930s knew well. Grasshoppers thrived in the cruelly hot and dry decade. A popular story of the era concluded that because grasshoppers liked salt, they would eat the shirt off your back.
The gallows humor was needed on July 26, 1931, when millions of the insects descended on fields in North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska. The region was already suffering a heart-breaking drought when the pests arrived. Grasshoppers blotted out the sun and shovels were needed to remove them.
Farmers reported that hoppers chewed on wagon tongues and horse-drawn equipment. Roads became slippery because of squished grasshoppers and trains had trouble moving along tracks because of insect grease.
The hopper plague wasn’t the only one that broke many a farmer’s back. On April 25, 1935, a black blizzard of dust swept across the region as the drought and resulting Dust Bowl hit with full vengeance. Farm families dealt with the twin plagues for most of the decade.
County, state, and federal authorities — usually working with Extension Service experts — responded with poison to fight hoppers. In Wisconsin, one county used 6,000 tons of poison mixed with 2,500 tons of wheat bran. Other agencies used whey and sawdust in the mix. Divine intervention was sought as solution by many who thought the invasion was on par with the Egyptian plagues.
My mother often spoke about how dust settled on dishes and everything else in the house. It was necessary to cover everything with towels to keep the dust out. The heat was so oppressive that many slept outside.
The disasters left many with little choice but to head west to California, Oregon and Washington, which seemed the land of milk and honey compared to the farms lost to bankruptcy.
Grasshoppers continue as an isolated problem in the United States, but in 2020 they are a huge problem in east Africa and western Asia, where nations have struggled to feed their populations for decades.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Agency estimates that 450 billion insects have been destroyed since January, but crops and thus starvation threaten on a massive scale. The agency estimates that the locusts can destroy enough food to feed 35,000 people in a single day.
The situation is worsened because supplies to combat the locusts are hard to get by small-scale farmers. It is the worst infestation in modern history. Some farmers have taken to beating on metal drums and using brooms to chase the insects off.
It is unlikely that the United States will ever see another grasshopper invasion that destroyed millions of acres of crops in the 1930s. However, many others across the globe continue to fight against a plague that’s been around since Old Testament times.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.