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There were major problems associated with the Dust Bowl other than dust, wind, heat, drought, and lack of cash. There were grasshoppers! Zillions of them!
And as you have seen in repeated television documentaries, grasshoppers eat anything and everything that is green, and some things that are gray or brown, including fence posts and shingles. Other crop-eating varmints invaded the countryside as well, but grasshoppers, because of their numbers, were the most destructive, unless you wish to discuss jackrabbits, which we will do when the fields and gardens begin to green up a bit.
Grasshoppers hatch in the spring from eggs laid by the mature insect in the previous late fall. When they hatch, you almost have to have a magnifying glass to see them hopping merrily around the landscape like some kind of green flea beetle. But when they hatch in a fence row of weeds, or a field of emerging corn, they show phenomenally quick growth and what was a speck of green yesterday becomes a crop destroyer in just a few days. Grasshoppers have voracious appetites to say the least, and when hatching in large numbers, can lay waste to a field of anything green.
Gardeners would lay awake nights, hoping that the “chomping” they were imagining was just the dog chewing on a bone in the backyard. I use to try and shoo the grasshoppers away from the beans toward the zucchini. But the greatest amount of damage by grasshoppers seemed to occur in a newly emerging crop of wheat. The young, tender sprigs of growth seemed to disappear overnight, particularly in the areas near the fencerows of a wheat field. Fencerows were never farmed of course and weeds always seemed to pop up there every spring. Grasshoppers would soon move in and reduce the weed growth, just waiting for the grain drill. My Dad and other farmers had an answer to this crop destructing foolishness.
Here’s what they did. Dad would fill an old wash tub with a sack of bran. Bran, as you know is the outermost portion of the wheat kernal, and is very dry and fluffy. To the bran he would add a jug of banana oil. The oil served as a very fragrant draw to grasshoppers. And finally, enough arsenic would be carefully added to the concoction to make it lethal to any varmint who happened to imbibe. Careful measurement of the poison was a must, because arsenic was a bit expensive, just like old lace. The tub of grasshopper poison would be loaded onto a trailer and hitched to the tractor.
Dad would throw the poison bran by the shovelful into the fencerow as Max and I drove the tractor very slowly along. Several tubs full of the mixture were required, depending of course on the length of the fencerow. The process was very effective because an inspection the next morning revealed dead grasshoppers an inch deep or more. There were no factory produced bug killers in those days, so you made do with what you had. Needless to say, great strides have been taken in the last 75 years to cope with this type of problem. Crop science is a wonderful thing!
Oh, and by the way….I didn’t shoo those grasshoppers away from the beans toward the zucchini. That would have been useless because not even a grasshopper will eat a zucchini!
Kay Melia is a longtime broadcaster, author and garden in northwest Kansas.