By Robert Thompson
Agricultural inspectors have discovered what they are calling a Y2K bug problem.
According to the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, Mormon crickets have invaded about 750,000 acres throughout the state, including 5,000 acres in Utah County. Similarly, an estimated 500,000 acres statewide are infested with grasshoppers.
Officials expect things to get worse as the summer progresses.
“The grasshoppers are hatching as we speak,” said Greg Abbott, USDA Pest Control coordinator.
The impact of the insect infestations has become so large that Gov. Mike Leavitt declared a state of agricultural emergency on March 15.
Leavitt’s announcement serves as a wake-up call to the federal government.
“The U.S. Congress has failed to budget money to take care of the grasshopper and cricket problem,” Abbott said.
A state of emergency will allow Utah to apply for federal assistance to help farmers deal with the effects of the cricket and grasshopper plague, Abbott said.
But even with the funding given to cut down on the infestation, the insect problem is expected to have a negative impact on Utah’s agricultural economy.
“We experienced over $20 million in damages last year and the infestation is expected to be twice as damaging this year,” said Utah Sen. Bob Bennett.
“It is essential that we address this problem now in order to avoid damaging effects on Utah’s economy later,” Bennett said.
The UDAF has blamed the insect outbreak on a mild winter and an early spring, compounded by a high grasshopper and cricket population last year.
Normally, grasshopper and cricket eggs are destroyed by harsh winters, but consecutive mild and wet winter months can contribute to higher insect populations.
With the increased number of grasshoppers and crickets on the loose, farmers will be keeping their eyes on their alfalfa, wheat and corn crops, which the insects traditionally target.
However, grasshoppers and crickets are not particularly selective in their diets. Both groups of insects will eat practically any above-ground plant tissue, including flowers, tree bark and fruits, the UDAF said.