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Army worms destroy 10 fields in northern Jefferson County

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Army worms that have munched their way across Jefferson County appear to have finally slowed their charge, but not before destroying 10 fields and thousands of acres north of the Black River in the past week.

Affecting farmers in the northern half of the county, the second wave of damage caused by the pests followed a batch that destroyed about 40 fields in southern Jefferson County after arriving about two weeks ago, said Michael E. Hunter, field crops educator for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County. He said that he received about 140 calls from farmers in Pamelia, Clayton, Orleans, Alexandria Bay, Theresa and Philadelphia last Friday through Tuesday, but that the outbreak now seems to have stalled.

“I think what’s happened is that people are well aware of this and looking for them, now,” he said of the pale-green and brown larvae, which range from 1/8 to 1.5 inches long. The caterpillar-like worms, which pupate into moths, migrated to the north country this spring after they arrived in Western New York.

“We’re still finding small larvae out there, but they’re spotty, light infestations,” Mr. Hunter said. “Farmers should continue to be vigilant about checking their fields.”

In their early growth stage, the worms tend to settle near the ground and can only be found with close inspection. They take about three weeks to grow full size and do the most field damage during the final week of their life cycle.

But while numerous farms in southern Jefferson County saw crops destroyed by the worms during the first outbreak, most farmers in the county’s northern half addressed the problem ahead of time because they were informed about it, Mr. Hunter said. Many avoided the problem altogether by mowing their hayfields.

Even so, a handful of farmers in the northern part of the county had their crops destroyed in the past week. Joseph L. Fults, who operates a dairy farm in Pamelia with his father, Lewis A., said army worms devoured about 200 acres of hay crops — accounting for about 30 percent of the 1,000 tons of forage used to feed the farm’s cattle herd.

“This took us off-guard,” said Joseph Fults, who first spotted the worms last Wednesday. “I had never seen them before, and everyone I’ve spoken to didn’t know what the identifying signs were. Basically, the army worms moved in and stripped the hay crop.”

By the time they learned, fields were too damaged to combat the problem.

“When we went out to cut, there were no leaves on the grass,” he said. “Earlier, we chalked up the slow growth to the cold spring but, in hindsight, the hay wasn’t growing” because of the worms.

Preventing future outbreaks of army worms will always be a challenge, Mr. Hunter said, but farmers can be proactive by closely monitoring their fields or hiring field scouts to do so.

“Some growers say there’s no value (to hiring scouts) and say they’ll do it themselves. But they sometimes let it slip when their other work piles on,” he said. “I think this outbreak has been a teachable moment for some farmers.”

Farms are the most vulnerable to pests in the early spring, Mr. Hunter said.

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