Jamaica’s Fight Against Beet Army Worms

Farmers search for traces of Beet Army Worm in demonstration plots during a Farm Field School session. (Photo courtesy of The Gleaner)

Each year, Jamaica’s Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) releases advisories to farmers regarding best practices and about pests to prevent/avoid. Over the last two decades, there have been numerous warnings about the beet army worm, a pest that attacks mainly onions and escallions, causing widespread damage. A June 2013 article in The Gleaner reported that in one episode, the beet army worm was responsible for wiping out an estimated 45 hectares of crops valued at some J$31 million. We took a minute to speak with Camille Beckford, director of public relations and communication at RADA, who explained why it is important for Jamaican farmers to take the necessary preventative measures against the beet army worm both now and in future.

In 2012, Jamaica had a beet army worm outbreak in St Elizabeth, which RADA managed to control – and has kept controlled – for the past 4 years. The outbreak was a result of a combination of factors, including a fall in the prices for escallions and onions, which caused a glut in the market. Unable to sell their crops, the farmers left them in the fields unreaped, unwittingly creating prime breeding grounds for the beet army worm. Added to that was the cool climate, which the beet army worm prefers.

Another issue Beckford noted was that when these farmers finally transported their produce to other markets in other parishes, they also unwittingly transported the beet army worms into these areas, worsening the situation.

It took intense and concentrated efforts to control this outbreak which occurred in 2013. Beckford explained that this took place mainly through the Farmer Field School effort, in which extension officers met with farmers in participatory learning exercises and taught them best practices and methods for beet army worm eradication and prevention.

In these field school exercises, the farmers got to share their experiences and observations, which helped field officers to create reports of what was happening; and field officers got to share their findings of best practices with the farmers, facilitating mutual exchange of information and education.

Controlling the beet army worm

There are different methods to control beet army worms. Beckford explained that the worm prefers escallions and onions, but was quick to note that after they are finished with those crops, they will go on to other vegetables (their second and third food preferences, etc).

She said that the egg stage (the first development stage when the worm is smallest) is when pesticides are most effective for eradication. “When the farmers see the little white buds on the leaves … that is the best time to get rid of them,” she expounded. After the buds become worms, they are not as susceptible to pesticides, and therefore much harder to kill. Thereafter, the worms cocoon, then become moths. “It is therefore important for farmers to scout out fields twice per week,” Beckford said. “We also ask farmers to put up pheremone traps.” Pheremone traps lure insects through the use of pheromones (to monitor the pest).

Crop rotation

Beckford also said that crop rotation can be important in preventing the beet army worm. “The escallion is a rattoon crop,” she explained. “It is a crop that you can reap many times. The farmer doesn’t have to plow the fields [regularly] and there is also not as much crop rotation. They use the same lands repeatedly. This is a destructive cultural practice, even though it is, clearly, convenient.”

She  noted that beet army worm control and prevention cannot be done by one farmer only. “It has to be a community effort,” she said.  “It is not something that we can eradicate. The chemicals that are really harsh and would kill them [the beet army worms] would also destroy and kill the organisms that are beneficial to crops, so we have to be careful of pesticide use and timing.”

She also noted that the farmers who are affected are the ones who have been responding most swiftly to RADA’s advisories. RADA is also reallocating field staff to where the problem exists in intensified efforts to prevent and control the beet army worm.

Sources: Rural Agricultural Development Authority and The Gleaner Newspaper Archives