Northland growers losing everything as notorious pest fall armyworm decimates crops

Northland growers are battling the ongoing impacts of a new pest that's decimating their crops - the fall armyworm.

Last month the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) shifted from 'eradication' to long-term management of the insect and now industry groups are researching the best way for growers to control it because it's here to stay.

They might look small but armyworms are fast and hungry and they've been waging a war on Jennifer Ross's market garden in Waipu.

"We would literally be harvesting vegetables and they would be dropping from the vegetables, and the flowers as well, I lifted some flowers yesterday and they're just dropping. You can hear them drop and you can hear them thud when they drop to the ground," Left Fields farm owner Jennifer Ross said.

The boutique grower usually supplies restaurant customers and locals with chemical-free veggies.

But with crops being destroyed overnight by both the 'fall' and the 'tropical' armyworm paired with recent flood damage she has had to close.

And she's not the only Northland grower struggling with the tiny pests.

"A whole lettuce seed planting for a week was wiped out in one night. I didn't even realise they were there and then there was nothing left," Whangarei-based Hydrohealthy owner Murray Burns said.

Burns said the fall armyworm, which thrives in a wet and warm autumn, has slowed down as winter arrives but much of the damage has already been done.

"It's when you're trying to bulk up your crops for the winter, and it takes them out which leaves a big hole in your winter production," he said.

It's not just affecting bigger growers but backyard gardeners like Liz Sayers who planted vegetables to help supplement her pension.

"It's quite demoralising to plant seedlings and come out a couple of days later and find that they're just nothing but stalks."

Northlanders said they want more guidance on how to cope with army worms - including farmer and chair of Northland Regional Council's biodiversity and biosecurity working party Geoff Crawford who had 20 percent of his grazing maze wiped out last year.

"To the extent I'm thinking about not planting maize next year, which I'll have to cut cow numbers back by about 100 cows," he said.

MPI ran a biosecurity response from April 2022 to try and eradicate the fall armyworm but has now shifted into long-term management which will be led by industry groups. This is its advice for farmers and growers:

"The main thing is to talk to FAR, the Foundation for Arable Research, their industry body, their crop manager, there is an approved pesticide available to control the fall armyworm," MPI deputy director-general biosecurity Stewart Anderson said.

Because these tricky pests have moved in for good.