Gbarney, District Three, Bong County – Richard Farkia leans on the side of his cart as he prepares to leave his sugarcane field, bewildered by the formidable new pest that has ambushed his crops this month. An armyworm, which usually comes out at night, is seen on sugar cane crop around dusk at the Moseslon Village in electoral District Three in Bong County.
“I don’t know what it is,” says Farkia, a 36-year-old farmer from Moseslon Village. “But it is bigger than other ones. I have never seen this worm before.” The creature Farkia is unable to name is the fall armyworm.
The destructive pest has spread more than 3,000 km in two of Bong’s 13 administrative districts (1,865 miles) months ago, reaching more than 21 towns and villages in the county and posing a grave threat to grain output.
In Bong’s Zota District alone, where the pest struck first, about 2,000 hectares of crops had been affected by mid-June, including corn, sugarcane and other crops.
This poses a formidable challenge in Bong where about 60% of crop production comes from small farms of less than a hectare (2.5 acres) and owners lack basic knowledge and resources to tackle the pest.
The Ministry of Agriculture local office in the county warned earlier this year that armyworm was a severe threat to the country’s food security and in June launched a campaign to “snatch grain from the insect’s mouth.” The ministry’s local coordinator in the county says the solution to the worm problem seemed obvious – pesticide.
“You have to keep spraying chemicals. If you don’t kill the worm, you will end up without money,” says Farkia.
But paying for the pesticide in the quantities required has left many farmers out of pocket, while a failure to follow the complex regime needed – using different pesticides at different crop growth stages and rotating them to prevent resistance – means the money is often wasted.
“You just can’t kill them,” says Josiah Kollie, a 44-year-old farmer, from nearby Wolapolu Clan. “I have been farming for 20 years but have never seen this many worms.”
A frustrated Kollie applied pesticides five times to his last crop of sweet corn, but output nearly halved. He has already sprayed his new crop twice, to little effect.
“They told me to use one bucket but I used three. It still did not work. What can you do?” he asked.
But for farmers who have already battled severe drought this year, the latest threat has put their entire livelihoods at risk.
Villagers tend to give up treatment due to the high cost, Kollie Nah, agriculture coordinator of Bong County said, adding that sufficient human resources for plant protection were also lacking at the local level.
Yamah Kolliegboe, another Kpaquelleh farmer, sprayed pesticide on her 0.13 hectare corn field without results and is thinking about finding work in the city.
“The worms have devastated my corn crops this year. And there’s nothing much else I can do,” she said.
Experts say the fight against armyworms is difficult and the enemy is a tough one. Adept at hiding, the pest is hard to detect and prefers to venture out at night, to feast on plants and fly to new pastures.
“Local farmers here didn’t use much pesticide before and wouldn’t buy chemicals until they saw the worms, meaning they might have missed the best time to kill them,” said Charles King, a scientist at the Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI).
The villagers’ slow response to the arrival of armyworm was not helped by the absence of a trapping system, King added.
The worm has yet to reach other parts of the county, and some experts believe the lower temperatures in the region will protect it from a full attack.