Worst grasshopper infestation ever on tap for Prairies

Prairie farmers anticipate worst year ever for grasshoppers

Prairie farmers are facing a grasshopper infestation the likes of which might never have been seen in Western Canada. It's the last kick from a drought that devastated crops last year.

"In 42 years that I've farmed, I've never seen them this bad," said Bob Penner, a grain farmer northeast of Calgary. "It's the very worst I've ever seen."

Penner uses a car key to scratch the surface at the edge of a wheat field and turns up thousands of tiny yellow grasshopper eggs.

The problem isn't entirely unexpected. Last year's drought allowed grasshoppers to lay what researchers believe to be an enormous number of eggs. And they are now hatching.

The newborns are less than an inch long and have no wings yet, but the ground on Penner's farm is bug-ridden, and being damaged.

Farmers hit hard by two years of drought are reeling from the prospect of watching a bumper crop this year get devoured by bugs.

Penner says in some areas, there are more than 1,000 grasshoppers per square metre 40 times the infestation researchers would call "very severe."

Dan Johnson, a research scientist with Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge, says 2003 could be the worst year ever for grasshopper infestation in east central Alberta.

"This is a historical peak, certainly for Alberta this year. It can be a devastating onslaught and that's what some people are facing," he said.

Farmers in Saskatchewan are in danger, too.

Pesticides are in heavy use across the Prairies, as farmers try to fend off the destructive bugs. But Johnson says the farmers' best hope to save their crops is a dose of cool wet weather.