Farm Horizons, August 2014

Farmers persevere in spite of floods, bugs

By Wendy Petersen-Biorn
Executive Director Carver County Historical Society

As the farmer who won the lottery said when asked what he was going to do with his winnings, “Keep farming until it’s all gone.”

Ask any farmer, and they will tell you that farming is the toughest way of life they will ever love.

It requires as much business sense as any Dow Jones corporation president, and as much courage and stalwartness as a gambler.

Farming has changed dramatically over the last 100 years. Many farms have grown to a point where they are no longer a small family farm, but rather, large conglomerates.

Agriculture crops have also changed. Once, Waconia was the national center for sorghum production. Today, it is rare to find a field being grown.

Other changes have come in the form of herbicides and pesticides, which result in higher yields.

One thing that has not changed is the farmers’ dependence on nature for success. Mother Nature causes crop failure by unleashing everything from floods to bugs, all of which can destroy a year’s work in short order.

Floods have caused their share of crop failure in 2014. State Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Kris Eide reported July 1 that Carver County suffered an estimated total $9.2 million in damage.

How much of this is agriculture-related is unknown, but it has been reported that there has been a crop loss of between 35 and 41 percent.

It is too late to replant many crops following the last round of rain, unfortunately.

The CCHS newspaper index notes some level of flooding in most years; however, severe flooding was reported during 1881, 1951, 1952, 1965, 1968, 1978, 1991, 1993, 1997, 2001, 2002, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2014.

The most commonly reported bug problem, found in the Carver County Historical Society newspaper index, is the chinch bug.

Chinch bugs are a small, native insect. They are about one-fifth of an inch in size, and look like a black/dark brown beetle with a white strip on its back, which is actually its wings.

Due to their size, they can be difficult to find. The damage to crops and lawns is very visible, however.

The insect naturally feeds on wild prairie grasses. In the 19th century, settlers brought new crops of wheat, corn, sorghum, and other grains. The chinch bug adapted well to these new species, finding a new home and food source.

Carver County newspapers of the 1890s are full of references to the damage done by the insect decimating crops.

The Weekly Valley Herald urged farmers to “try Prof. Lugger’s remedy.” The newspaper even offered to pay for “its share of the expenses” to bring the professor to the county.

The day of using a pesticide had begun.

Some farmers found an organic practical method. They changed their crops to soybeans, a crop the chinch bug did not harm. With the field crop changed, the chinch bug population decreased.

Today, they are mostly a common lawn pest, and are commonly treated with pesticides and pest-resistant grasses.

Another common insect that has historically been a problem is the grasshopper, or locust.

Differentiating a locust and a grasshopper is not easy. According to Ask.com, a locust and a grasshopper are the same thing.

However, a 2010 article in Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior states, “all locusts are grasshoppers, but not all grasshoppers are locusts.”

No matter how the insect is defined, a locust plague was one of the greatest sustained agriculture disasters in Minnesota history.

Occurring between 1872 and 1877, the plague ended as quickly as it started, when the locusts simply flew away.

For Carver County, the largest locust plague recorded was during summer 1937.

While the plague of the 1870s was dealt with without pesticides, the plague in 1937 was handled through the use of “70 tons of ‘Hopper Bait.’”

The newspapers do not mention the type of bait that was used, other than to say it was an “arsenical compound.”

Sugar beet worms were treated in 1940 with a product called Pynocide, still in use today.

Will Rogers said, “The farmer has to be optimistic, or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.”

Farmers are a hardy group, who love the land. Despite all the uncertainties, most farmers would not want to do anything else or live any other way. There is just something about living on the land that gets in one’s blood.

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