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August 4, 2010

They eat green clothing off the clothes lines, green paint off the water tanks and turn your windscreen green. Cars need shade cloth over their grills to stop the engine overheating. Locusts can descend on your farm overnight and wipe out your whole crop by morning.

Locust sightings reported to DPI Victoria - Aug 2010

This Spring, the Victorian government will spend $43.5 million to fight the state’s most extensive locust plague in 75 years. Major locust activity exists through northern, western and central Victoria. Isolated sightings reach south to Melbourne’s suburbs and along the coast from Portland to Paynesville.

Wayne Shields is a fifth generation market gardener and no stranger to the Australian Plague Locust. “You hear ‘em clicking when they fly, but not until you’re very close,” he said.

Locusts came too close when he was a conventional farmer in the heart of the Riverina. They flew in, the size of your thumb, on the moist northerlies from southern Queensland. “Just a panorama, just shimmering; looking like irrigation sprays above the crops,” he said.

Wayne needed all his gear on riding the motorbike around his farm that season. It was an unpleasant experience, “very annoying, like hail,” he said.  He pointed to his sleeves and grinned: “They get in there and they’ve got big legs. It’s just an uncomfortable thing. They don’t hurt you, but they go up your shorts legs.”

The locusts arrived when Wayne was growing vegetables on 500 acres at Hillston, near Griffith in New South Wales.  He’d just finished seeding a crop of winter onions when the locusts began laying their eggs. “The ground was all nicely worked for them and they just thought that was great. They stuck their bums in the ground and laid everywhere. There were 60 acres of bare paddock and they used every bit of it,” he said.

In coming weeks, helicopters and fixed wing planes will be on standby across Victoria to spray the grounded locust hatchlings before they fatten up and swarm. Premier John Brumby chairs Victoria’s locust taskforce. He calls it war. Five incident control centres will operate through the State but timing will be crucial. Local councils will be funded to spray infested roadsides and parkland. A farmers’ rebate scheme will reimburse farmers 100% of their chemical costs.

Wayne Shields didn’t use aerial chemical spraying in the Riverina, he used boom sprays on the tractor. “You’d spray and spray and spray, and you’d fill the furrows. The tractor wheels would be that deep in dead locusts,” he said.  Since then, he returned to Victoria to farm Peninsula Fresh, his family’s Certified Organic property on the Mornington Peninsula.

Are there keys to finding natural solutions? Wayne said the cold is the trick, “heavy rain and a cold season stop them moving.”  Very few locust treatments are available for Certified Organic producers. Conventional chemicals sprayed on adjacent land can seriously contaminate organic farms.

The Department of Primary Industries is urging communication and consideration between conventional and organic producers.  For Certified Organic farmers in the infested areas, “It would be an absolute nightmare. Sometimes people are understanding, sometimes not. It would all come down to the individual,” said Wayne.

Contrary to popular myth, locusts pick and choose what they eat, said Wayne. “It’s an amazing thing just to watch it and see how it all works.”  Back in NSW, they wiped out his entire crop of celery, lettuces, Dutch carrots and seedless watermelons, but didn’t touch the pumpkins. And he got that onion crop out without any drama. They had only removed the dead, outer skins of the onions. “Made ‘em look really good; made it look like a picture,” he smiled.

Kaymolly Morrelle interviewed Wayne Shields of Peninsula Fresh at Melbourne Showgrounds Farmers’ Market, Federation Hall, Ascot Vale on Sunday 4 August 2010. © ksmorrelle 2010

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