Erik Somerfield walks through the wheat crop on his farm in central Montana wearing a raggedy t-shirt that has the words, “Be Hoppy” on its back.
The slogan is for a now-defunct brewery in his area he used to frequent from time to time.
Now, the slogan, coincidentally, can be used for his farm, because for each step he takes, he is escorted by a group of grasshoppers that number in the dozens every few square yards.
“They’re a scourge. They’re a scourge,” he said of them.
In many parts of the Western United States, particularly Montana, grasshoppers have passed being a nuisance and have reached a level very few would describe as anything other than an infestation.
“In a bad year when we’re not going to get the [crop] yields that we’d normally get, to have one more thing hitting you and affecting you, it’s another expense,” said Somerfield.
Adaptable to drier conditions, grasshoppers migrate and feast on the little green that surrounds the barren fields in the region. Because of this year’s drought, that means Somerfield's wheat crop.
A study by the University of Wyoming found that economic damage to crops occurs when there are more than 10 grasshoppers per square yard, but this year, those numbers are much higher as grasshoppers can number 40 or even 50 per square yard in certain parts of the country.
“The last few years have been pretty tough on some of these producers,” said Montana’s Plant Health Director Gary Adams for the United States Department of Agriculture.
Adams says grasshoppers have started to number in their size over the course of the last 20 years as climate change has led to drier summers and worsened drought conditions.
To mitigate the impact of grasshoppers, farmers and the government have used insecticides on their crops. It is helpful, but costly. In recent years, that same study by the University of Wyoming found between the cost of spraying and lost crops, grasshoppers can cause as much as $10.8 billion in damage in any given year.
“This top leaf, that’s where a majority of the nutrients that go into the head come from and they’ve chewed halfway through it,” said Somerfield, as he looks at the leaves on one of his wheat crops. “I don’t have any optimism on the malt barley making quality.”
With this year’s drought already having Somerfield estimating his yields 20-30% lower than normal, and grasshoppers tacking on another 5 to 10%, people can expect certain grain products to cost more once these crops go to harvest.
Somerfield, once more, is setting his eyes on next year.
“Next year’s better hopefully,” he said. “That’s what Montana is: it’s next year country.”