Grasshoppers

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Winning Nomination

I nominate the grasshopper Melanoplus sp. and others for inclusion into the Minnesota 150, because of their tremendous impact on agriculture, rural communities, and the environment. Grasshoppers attacked Minnesota farms in 1857, 1858, 1864, 1874, 1875, 1876, 1877, and again in the early 1930s. In the 1870s the media campaign behind the losses to wheat farmers began a long-enduring process of designating farmers as disaster victims and generating numerous forms of disaster relief. Piles of grasshopper poison--strychnine/cyanide-laced sawdust--were later bulldozed into pits across western Minnesota as the pests departed--creating leaking hazardous waste sites into the late 20th century.
~Bob Quist, Elk River, MN


Contents

History

A Minnesota farm crisis

"A cloud was over the sun. It was not like any cloud they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes, but they were larger than snowflakes, and thin and glittering. Light shone through each flickering particle.
"There was no wind. The grasses were still and the hot air did not stir, but the edge of the cloud came on across the sky faster than wind...
"Plunk! Something hit Laura's head and fell to the ground. She looked down and saw the largest grasshopper she had ever seen. Then huge brown grasshoppers were hitting the ground all around her, hitting her head and her face and her arms. They came thudding down like hail.
"The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness."
From Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Banks of Plum Creek, 1937

Every summer from 1873 to 1877, midwestern farmers saw flourishing crops vanish as swarms of grasshoppers descended on their fields. There had been earlier infestations in the 1850s and 1860s, and more were to come in the 1930s. But the five-year plague in the 1870s was particularly devastating, leaving thousands of families without the basic necessities, including seed for the next year's crop.

"In the 1870s, the media campaign behind the losses to wheat farmers began a long-enduring process of designating farmers as disaster victims and generating numerous forms of disaster relief," writes nominator Bob Quist, site manager at the Oliver H. Kelley Farm, a Minnesota Historical Society Historic Site and working farm near Elk River, Minnesota. Relief was slow in coming, however--initially, farmers were expected to look to their families and communities for help, and it was only after the plagues stretched on for several years that state and federal resources kicked in.

Changes wrought by the grasshopper plagues are still with us, not only in the form of farm-relief programs that have eased burdens during droughts and other disasters, but in other, less obvious, ways. Bob Quist explains: "Piles of grasshopper poison were later bulldozed into pits across western Minnesota as the pests departed, creating leaking hazardous waste sites into the twentieth century."

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