Hobart Hallock, 59, a soft-spoken wheat farmer from southeastern Colorado, recalls the great grasshopper plague of 20 years ago, when, by local memory, swarms devoured the crops, blinded airline pilots at 40,000 feet and left the frogs too fat to jump. More bitterly, he remembers 20 years before that, when he lost an entire wheat crop to grasshoppers and had to start all over. This summer, as if guided by some biblical cycle, the hoppers have come again. Millions upon millions of the voracious insects are threatening Hallock’s richest land, and what with rising costs and falling crop prices, he worries about his ability to survive. “I expect to be around next year,” says Hallock wearily, “but I don’t know how long after that. If things don’t get any better, I might just as well quit.”
His sentiments are echoed by thousands of grasshopper-besieged farmers in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Nebraska. In Hallock’s home state alone, an estimated 2.5 million acres are threatened by the worst infestation in two decades. A few grasshoppers can forage a square yard of pasture as fast as a cow, yet the federal Environmental Protection Agency has so far prohibited using such potent insecticides as Heptachlor, a suspected cancer-causing agent. Some farmers—including Hallock’s son Ralph, 31, who owns 320 acres nearby—are using weaker stuff but with unimpressive results. “A lot of hoppers are already at the edge of my fields,” says the elder Hallock. “We have no way to control them.”
Nor can Hallock and his fellow farmers find much cause for hope in their local lawmakers. A recent emergency session of the Colorado legislature bogged down in partisan squabbling. After much prodding they passed a bill limiting the state’s liability for grasshopper control and authorizing $2 million for spraying—$1 million less than Democratic Gov. Richard Lamm had requested. Meanwhile one legislator proposed recycling grasshoppers for animal feed, and State Sen. Martin Hatcher, asserting that the hopper is closely related to the cockroach, offered a metaphorical argument that did not sound like a compliment to his colleagues. “Politicians are like cockroaches,” he said. “It’s not so much what they eat and carry away as what they fall into and ruin.”
Hallock took over his family’s farm at age 12 when his father died. After being wiped out in 1938, he took odd jobs to raise money, then returned to the land. “Farming got into my blood,” he says. His only years away were during the war, when he served in the Army Air Corps in Europe. The 1,200-acre spread he now owns in Colorado had been prosperous, but with the recent cost-price squeeze Hallock estimates that he’s lost $15,000 in each of the last two years. At that rate, how long can he hold out? “It all depends on how long the bank goes along with me,” he says.
The invasion of the grasshoppers means more belt tightening for Hallock and his wife, Verna, 56, who now do all the chores themselves. During harvest Hobart works 18-hour days in the field (though in 1972 he was laid up for six months by an oxygen tank explosion), and Verna becomes their truck driver. Hoppers have already eaten through 40 acres of his barley, but Hallock’s real concern is the fall wheat crop, yet to be planted. “We’re just ordinary farming people,” he says, “but I think the Las Vegas tables have better odds than we do here.”