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From plagues to partnerships

Grasshopper invasion of 1930s left a legacy of cooperation


Today, research and Extension education help ensure that agricultural pests are contained and managed before they reach worst-case scenarios, like the grasshopper plagues of the 1930s.

Fortunately, Minnesota doesn't experience insect plagues like Laura Ingalls Wilder did from her little house on the prairie in the 1870s. The last major grasshopper invasion in the 1930s damaged crops but left behind the foundation for a problem-solving partnership. This research-based approach became the model that farmers, state officials and Extension would follow to tackle problems.

The 1930s brought tough times to Minnesota farms. Economic depression, droughts and dark clouds of grasshoppers invaded Minnesota fields. Fields were destroyed in hours. Grasshopper hordes ate paint off houses, riddled fence posts and chewed wooden parts of horse-drawn equipment. Nothing was safe. "I remember the grasshoppers being so thick they hit me in the face when I was mowing hay with horses in Houston County," recalls Harley Hanke, who was a teenager during the 1930s.

Minnesotans banded together to battle the attack. Extension entomologist H.L. Parten surveyed grasshopper eggs in the fall of 1931. His predictions triggered a response chain the following year. State funds covered the bait cost for farmers to eliminate the destructive pests. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, with help from the Works Progress Administration and state highway department, moved the bait to hard-hit areas. Demand was such that Extension educators conducted as many as 500 baiting demonstrations each year for county farm bureaus and other groups.

By the last big raid in 1939, the war against grasshoppers had become a well-oiled machine. Some one-fourth of all Minnesota farmers spread poison bait that year, avoiding an estimated $12.6 million loss during a time of 40-cent per bushel corn.

Catastrophic disasters such as the grasshopper plagues are likely gone forever. "Modern communications gives us an early warning sign for potential threats and more time to do research," says Extension agronomist Seth Naeve.

What survives, however, is the legacy of cooperative teamwork among farmers, Extension and state and federal agencies working to solve threats to Minnesota agriculture. That model was tested again in September 1956, after an exceptionally early frost left farmers devastated. Bill Hueg had just been hired as an Extension agronomist and remembers farmers panicking. "They planted corn later in those days and didn't have experience feeding high moisture corn," Hueg says. "We pulled the experts together and gave advice on what to do."

Extension's foundation as a problem solver also worked well in the 1980s when farm foreclosures spread across Minnesota.

Farmers, state leaders and Extension confronted the threat together. Extension's farmer-lender mediation service helped borrowers and lenders through the crisis.

The same partnerships are working today to overcome bovine tuberculosis. An outbreak of the cattle disease in northwestern Minnesota in 2007 and 2008 prompted action by the state, Extension and producers to minimize the impact and eventually eradicate the disease from Minnesota.

"Today, when an emergency happens we can respond rapidly with research-based information," Naeve says. "We use our partnerships with grower groups, state agencies and federal agencies to get the information out—quickly and accurately."

For more information on Extension commodity crops programs, visit Also see the Institute for Ag Professionals at

Quick response, big return

Bill Hueg and current agronomist Seth Naeve

Strong partnerships among Extension, farmers and state agencies—like those reinforced by retired agronomist Bill Hueg and current agronomist Seth Naeve—help Minnesota respond more quickly to agricultural threats.

A modern-day version of the grasshopper story unfolded in 2001 when Extension educators discovered soybean aphids in Minnesota fields. Fortunately, the ending is different.

After Extension entomologists confirmed the outbreak, a partnership with Minnesota soybean growers and state and federal agencies fueled a coordinated response.

"The partnership between the soybean council and the University absolutely reduced economic losses by helping farmers know how to scout for aphids, when to control them and how to control them," says Gene Stoel of Lake Wilson, Minn., a farmer and member of the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council's board of directors.

Within a year, the University of Minnesota was using its sophisticated computer model to combine weather information with agronomic and entomology expertise to guide growers. The model has since been adopted throughout the Upper Midwest.

The University's investment in research and outreach to create the model could generate $1.3 billion over 15 years in the north central states, according to a study by Michigan State University.

For more information on Extension resources for managing the soybean aphid in Minnesota, visit

Not all bugs are alike

"The old strategy was bugs were bad and let's get rid of them," Extension crops educator Phil Glogoza says of the 1930s mindset. "We don't have a zero-tolerance policy today."

Indeed, an insect (or two) in the field doesn't necessarily add up to crop losses. There are good bugs and bad bugs. And then there are bugs that haven't reached numbers high enough to inflict economic damage.

"We teach growers the biological processes going on in the field and how to predict when a particular insect is approaching the level where it makes economic sense to treat it," says Glogoza, who is based in Moorhead. That concept is called Integrated Pest Management, and Glogoza uses it to help growers of corn, soybean, sunflowers, wheat and other small grains make decisions based on research, knowledge and economics.

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