It’s a beautiful photo right out of the mythic west. A lone horseman pulls up to watch his animals feed contentedly up the slope. Only it’s not a cattle drive, it’s a turkey drive. The caption under the image, in the 1928 McKenzie county extension report, reads, “Ludvig Weiskamp, Mr. Schettel’s nephew, coming home with the turkeys after a grasshopper feed.” H.A. Schettel was holding a thousand bronze birds for the Christmas market. After you’ve processed the proposition of German turkey ranchers riding the ranges of West River North Dakota, consider also that they made grasshoppers an economic asset, as turkey feed. That’s not typical. As I read the old extension reports, the county agents and their clients viewed annual infestations of grasshoppers with dread.
The agents spent considerable time organizing local efforts to combat the hoppers, with results that were mixed at best. The Stark County agent reported in 1936 he tried to get farmers interested in spreading poison bait-a mix of sawdust and bran laced with sodium arsenite-but 90 percent of them thought it was useless.
The next year he tried again. He called a meeting of extension cooperators from throughout the county and brought in F. Gray Butcher, the Extension Entomologist from Fargo. Then he asked the farmerswhat they thought of the proposal to mount an anti-grasshopper campaign, which was probably a mistake, because every single one replied it would be of “no value.” I don’t think the agent quite understood the point of view of the farmers. They were in the middle of a drought so severe they didn’t expect to raise any crops. The way they saw it was, why poison the hoppers, just let them starve along with us.
After they got a little rain, though, they started lining up for distributions of poison bait in Dickinson and Richardton. They were smiting the hoppers left and right-until in midsummer the insects took flight and re-infested fields from all directions. Chastened, the county agent concluded, “It is very doubtful whether the farmers will go into another extensive campaign if the adjoining counties do not do likewise.”
Farmers were spreading poison across their fields with two types of devices-homemade tub broadcasters and truck-mounted blowers. The broadcasters were on rubber tires, had some sort of salvaged differential to transmit power from the axle to the pan, were held together with angle-iron, and carried an open drum of bait. The blowers were pulled off of combines, threshers, or ensilage cutters. It was all pretty inventive. Some of them, too, constructed hopperdozers, as they often were known. A hopperdozer was a vertical tin or screen mounted behind a pan that was filled with water and topped with a skim of kerosene or oil. It was pushed through a field, the hoppers flying up and hitting the tin or screen, then falling into the pan to die. One fellow even invented a bug zapper, that is, he electrified a screen mounted on his car bumper and drove through his fields electrocuting grasshoppers.
In McKenzie County a few years later, 1939, people complains the poison bait campaign was killing livestock and wildlife. The county agent counteracted this by putting two chickens into a pen just outside his office and feeding them grasshopper bait every day. (He also sneaked them a little corn.) On conclusion of the demonstration, as he prepared to return the hens to their farm home, one of them escaped and led him a hilarious chase through town. This, the agent said, “well established the fact that the birds had not suffered at all from the feeding of poison bait.”
At the end of the crop year the agent collected questionnaires from farmers commenting on the effectiveness of the grasshopper campaign. One of them wrote, “You can’t destroy what God sends for a punishment until he wants the hoppers to disappear.” Sort of an Old Testament view of pest control.
The chicken that ran away-I’ll be Mr. Schettel could have roped that bird.