CORNWALL — P.E.I. farmers will have their backs against the wall this year as they prepare to do battle with a foe that can’t be killed.
And it was standing room only here as 300 farmers jammed into the Dutch Inn Tuesday to hear a prognosis that gave little hope to keeping a deadly pest at bay.
P.E.I. may be known as the gentle Island, but beneath the soil is a swarming horde of insects more ravenous than the walking dead.
“It’s like trying to fight back with a spray bottle full of soap and water,’’ mused one farmer discussing the problem during a coffee break.
At issue is a pest called wireworm, or click beetle when mature, and it’s proving to be an unstoppable force, not just in P.E.I., but across Canada and in many parts of the world.
U.S. farmers have a tool box full of insecticides to use, but Canadian farmers have watched many chemicals either get banned or waiting to be approved.
“We’ve run out of registered remedies and I don’t see anything coming down the pipe for at least
five years,’’ said lead investigator Dr. Bob Vernon,
an Agriculture Canada expert based in Agassiz, B.C.
“The silver bullet is gone and whatever company comes up with a way to kill wireworm will do very well.”
The packed session was an information day on wireworm and the topic is a hot one for farmers looking for a way to save their crops from a voracious insect that can destroy up to 40 per cent of the harvest.
And wireworm doesn’t discriminate. It’s just as happy to munch its way through carrots and corn as it is cabbage, grains and potatoes. It doesn’t affect human health, but either kills the plant or eats a subway tunnel through tubers making them unmarketable.
Shauna Mellish of the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture said wireworm invasion — heavy on P.E.I. — has sparked $3.5 million in research money in the last two years, much from industry leaders like Cavendish Farms.
“It will take a lot of tedious work and research to slay this beast,’’ said Brian Beaton, also with the provincial Agriculture Department.
Vernon said wireworm has been on the rise ever since the insecticide Lindane was banned in 2004.
But the unassuming hero that could come to the rescue has nothing to do with chemicals or insecticides. It’s just another natural plant from the mustard family and relieved farmers are taking a keen interest.
“Planting brown mustard as a rotational crop has proven effective,’’ confirmed Dr. Christine Norohna with Agriculture Canada in Charlottetown. “As well as buckwheat, it does keep them away … and in some cases kills them.”
Family reunions appear dear to the hearts of this earth-boring predator, especially since they don’t die off in winter and each birth spawns 200 eggs. Wireworm swarms a field as a group and can practically kill off anything green.
The natural chemical in brown mustard, however, if eaten by wireworms, kills them. It’s a possible bright spot even if there is no known market for selling brown mustard to allow farmers to make a profit during that rotational growing year.
In a three-year potato crop rotation, farmers will usually grow a grain crop to sell. However, it was made quite clear that grain crops are exactly what attract the wireworm in the first place.
Dr. Zenaida Ganga of Cavendish Farms research division also concurred with the findings on brown mustard and buckwheat and outlined tests the multinational company is conducting.