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‘I cannot pay my staff’ - Farmers hope winter will save them from army worm onslaught

By Sipho Mabena | 2017-04-18 13:39:23.0

Small-scale farmers are pinning their hopes on the dry winter season to exterminate the fall army worm that has destroyed almost their entire crops‚ leaving behind only barren stalks.

With at least 80% of his crops gobbled up by the voracious larval pest‚ a Pretoria north maize farmer has cut his losses and used the infested crop to feed his cattle as he battled to find an effective pesticide.

The worms marched into Hendrik Swanepoel’s farm in January and left sheer devastation.

He normally sells 15‚000 dozen green mealies per harvest‚ but this past season he barely harvested 1‚000 dozen.

“I cannot pay my staff. I could not even buy a tank of diesel. I am still struggling to get rid of the worms‚ as we speak. The moths are gone but the actual big worms are still there. I hope they will not survive winter. I am scared to take the risk and plant again‚” Swanepoel said.

He said forking out thousands of rands for a pesticide was unhelpful when neighbouring farms are helpless‚ since the worms would simply move from the untreated farms into his.

The pests have been positively identified as the same strain that destroyed crops in Zambia‚ Zimbabwe and Malawi and migrated to SA in January‚ where they have been detected in seven provinces.

The Department of Agriculture‚ Forestry and Fisheries activated an emergency team to help fight the plague but Swanepoel said he received no assistance from government.

“I think their communication was ineffective. I did not even know who to contact‚ so I just watched helplessly as my crops were being destroyed‚” he said.

Neighbouring maize farmer‚ Jaques Prinsloo‚ said none of the several pesticides he tried on his Bon Accord family farm at the cost of R40‚000 worked. It was only when he imported a pesticide from Zambia for R14‚000 that he started seeing results‚ but it was too late for his 100ha farm.

“It killed 95% of the worms‚ so there are still worms‚ but I believe they will not survive the dry winter season‚” he said.

Jannie de Villiers‚ Grain SA CEO‚ said there was no significant impact on commercial production because their genetically modified crops were resistant to the larvae.

“Farmers that were affected used chemicals to control the pest but some individual farmers did have big losses‚ especially on sorghum. But at the moment all the plants are drying up. You will see‚ as you drive‚ that they are all becoming brownish and hard‚ so the worms cannot eat them anymore. I think the threat is over‚” he said.

De Villiers said the worms could be back after winter‚ especially in the coastal areas that were tropical enough for the worms to survive.