"They are definitely eating, that is what it looks like," Heather Darby said.
Darby is an agronomist with the University of Vermont Extension. Lately she has been tracking an invasion of army worms.
"We get that first call from a farmer who says I don't know where my corn went. Can you come out and look? And we come out and look around and you can see the worms essentially so bad the ground's moving," Darby said.
One to 200 acres of corn have been completely decimated. The good news is the outbreak is somewhat isolated to Franklin, Addison and Grand Isle counties, and some reports from the Northeast Kingdom, as well.
The Longway farm in Swanton caught their invasion early.
"Right now, from what I have seen, we have at least 40 acres that have pretty heavy pressure that need to be sprayed. The rest of it we have not seen too much damage yet," Adam Longway said.
The army worms were also in some hayfields reducing grass stocks to stubs, which forced some farmers to hay early to salvage the crop.
This army worm is pretty small and that is bad news; that means he has at least a couple more weeks of eating left to go.
"Well, it is not only just the loss of the corn it's the loss of the fertilizer we put down," Longway said. "We have pretty much been trying to grow and the worms are eating all the profit and just the feed loss will be pretty devastating to us, plus after a year like last year we are pretty tight on feed on our farm as it is."
So where do army worms come from? They winter in southern states. In the moth stage in the spring, they migrate north by hitching rides in storm fronts. So where they land depends on which way the wind blows, and this year it included Vermont, New York and Pennsylvania. When they land, they lay their eggs and the caterpillars emerge, very hungry.
"Essentially the army worm burrows down into the whirl of the corn, so if you look down in there you can see where it has been feeding," Darby said.
Really young corn can recover from the damage, but once there are five true leaves above the ground, the plants become very vulnerable to pests.
"Once the corn is at that stage the growing point is above ground, and the growing point of the corn is the factory for the corn, so all of the potential ears and leaves are now sitting above ground. So any real damage to the corn can essentially mean 100 percent crop loss or plant loss," Darby explained.
The Longways plan to spray to help get rid of the army worms. It will be expensive, anywhere from $8-$20 an acre. The spraying has to be done at night because that is when the worms come out to feed. And that's why crops might look perfectly fine one day and then be chewed to oblivion by the next morning.
The last big army worm infestation in Vermont was back in 2001. Darby told is that was much worse that what we are experiencing this year.
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