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Grasshopper invasion from the ’80s devoured Shandon

Jean Grant looks at grasshoppers covering her home. Billions that invaded the Shandon-Creston area after a wet winter in 1982-83.
Jean Grant looks at grasshoppers covering her home. Billions that invaded the Shandon-Creston area after a wet winter in 1982-83. Telegram-Tribune

Rainfall droppers bring grasshoppers.

I think that is how the old rhyme goes.

The abundant rainy season of 1982-83 brought an invasion of grasshoppers worthy of a 1950s science fiction movie or a biblical plague.

Before Phil Dirkx was a columnist, he reported about the invasion June 24, 1983, back when The Tribune was known as The Telegram-Tribune:

Billions swarming Cholame: Grasshoppers

“When you’re inside the house you can hear them moving outside,” said Loretta Twisselman who lives on Bitterwater Road southeast of Cholame.

“It’s weird, like (the movie) ‘The Birds.’ 

“You can hear them hopping,” said her neighbor Jean Grant. “You can even hear them with the TV on.”

These women were talking about the billions of grasshoppers that have been foraging the last few weeks in parts of the Shandon and Cholame area. Twisselman’s mother-in-law Verona Twisselman said her husband Henry “has been spraying every day for two weeks.”

The smell of the dead grasshoppers and malathion spray has been so bad some days it made her stay indoors. But the spraying has not eliminated the grasshoppers.

“Sometimes I thought they came back to life,” Verona said with a smile.

When you’re inside the house you can hear them moving outside.

Loretta Twisselman

But it has been hard for her to smile lately because the grasshoppers have devastated so many of the shrubs, plants and small trees that looked so healthy and green in her yard just a few weeks ago.

Greenery is very precious in the arid Bitterwater Road area. “You work so hard to get it,” she said.

“I guess I’d sit down and cry it would help,” she said. “I think I must be in shock.

As she walked on her lawn Wednesday, fountains of grasshoppers sprang up with every step and everything in her patio was veiled with squatting grasshoppers.

“This is just a few to what there have been,” she said. “You couldn’t see that wall over there.”

She thought the cooler temperatures might have reduced the numbers of grasshoppers Wednesday. Her patio, driveway and walkways were carpeted with live and dead grasshoppers. The Twisselmans sweep and hose away the dead ones every day.

Two miles up the road, Jean Grant folded newspapers to caulk the cracks along the floors and around the windows and doors of her home to keep the grasshoppers out.

“I have to watch close or Mathew will put one in his mouth,” referring to her small son.

Outside the insects swarmed and clambered over each other near the front door. Elsewhere they covered the walls and clumped together on wires and the picket fence.

Next door, Jean’s mother-in-law Lilly Grant said she has not been able to keep the grasshoppers out of her house and they are chewing on her house plants. Lilly was also disheartened by the assault on the greenery around her house.

“We depend so much on our greenery in the summer,” she said. “We don’t use much air conditioning.”

The grasshoppers don’t seem to hurt people or animals but one of the Grant’s dog has to be kept indoors because he won’t stop eating them. “He just gorges himself on them,” said Jean Grant.

Jean Grant folded newspapers to caulk the cracks along the floors and around the windows and doors of her home to keep the grasshoppers out.

The area has had grasshopper outbreaks in the past but this is the worst one Don McMillan of Shandon can remember in his 85 years around the area.

Jose Errotabre Jr. agrees. He farmed the San Joaquin Valley before coming to the Shandon area.

“I’ve never seen them this bad,” he said of the grasshoppers he’s battling in his alfalfa fields near the rest stop on Highway 46 between Shandon and Cholame. Despite spraying with malathion from air and the ground he estimated he has lost 10 acres of his present crop.

“That equals 15 tons and at $115 per ton,” he said. “If you don’t spray it will kill you.”

On some land next to his, Don McCornack and his sons Randy and Matt also raise alfalfa.

“Two weeks ago you couldn’t see any green, the alfalfa was brown with grasshoppers,” said Randy McCornack. “We used aerial spray first. That gave us a chance to regroup. They weren’t evident for two days after the spray.”

Since then the McCornacks have been spraying from the ground because it is less expensive.

The grasshoppers have taken the leaves off 15 to 20 acres of the McCornacks’ alfalfa and left only the stems.

Farmers in the area have found out the grasshoppers will eat anything green including weeds. “They are the only things that will eat mustard,” Errotabre said.

They also eat safflower and grapevine.

In the Tepusquet Vineyards’ San Juan Vineyard south of Shandon they are attacking tender grafted Muscat Canale vines and mature Zinfandel vines.

“We spray and two hours later you kick a vine and they jump out again,” said vineyard manager Derryal John.

“It looks like we’ll end up spraying once a week, he said. “That’s very expensive.”

Much of the spraying from the air has been done by an aerial applicator pilot Ed Devaul of Paso Robles. he said it can cost from $4 to $12 per acre depending on the material and method.

I’ve never seen it this bad before.

Ed Devaul

But the grasshopper plague has not meant a big increase in his business. Mostly it meant spraying small acreages and the borders of fields to try to stop the advance of the grasshoppers. He said the grasshopper outbreak extends through the hills and valleys from below McKittrick all the way to Los Banos.

“I’ve never seen it this bad before,” Devaul said.

Most of the grasshoppers are still young, but some are developing their wings and he expects them to cover more ground soon.

“Now that they have wings they can migrate for miles,” said Robert Lilly, a deputy county agricultural commissioner. “They could come to Paso Robles.”

Lilly does not know why they are so bad this year. They come in cycles every few years; and the wet winter may have made this year’s outbreak worse, he said.

Lilly said farmers can get advice — but not money — from county, state and federal officials to fight the grasshoppers.

The federal government will only spend money to spray grasshoppers on federal land, he said.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp

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