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Farming blues: Alfalfa aphid infestation

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Farming blues: Alfalfa aphid infestation

Manteca farmer Arnold “Butch” Rothlin is shown during the height of the alfalfa harvest last spring.

ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin/


POSTED September 8, 2013 11:53 p.m.

Arnold “Butch” Rothlin is not a happy camper. Actually, he’s not a happy alfalfa farmer.

The crop, which is his main livelihood, did not do well this past spring as far as yield went. Which, of course, affected his bottom-line dollar from his spring harvest.

The culprit was a pest, common and well known to farmers like Rothlin but whose sudden threatening appearance surprised many – the blue alfalfa aphid.

The infestation he experienced earlier this year was “pretty bad,” said a less-than-happy Rothlin who, with wife Rose, farms more than 200 acres in South San Joaquin. He did not indicate how many acres of his fields were affected by the infestation, or the financial extent of the damage he incurred.

However, the infestation is such that the affected alfalfa plant “only grows to about only a third of what it usually grows. The aphid sucks the plant down. It keeps sucking the juice out of the plants, and the plant just stops growing and gets shorter. You only get a third of it, and that affects your price,” said Rothlin who is a second-generation farmer who grew up in his parents’ dairy in southwest Manteca.

San Joaquin County Agricultural Commissioner Scott Hudson said he has “not heard a lot of complaints” from alfalfa growers about the spring blue alfalfa aphid infestation, but that does not mean it did not happen to some farmers.

“Pests come and go and they peak in some areas,” he said, adding farmers deal with these problems all the time though in cyclical manner, which is why farmers religiously monitor their crops constantly.

The blue alfalfa aphid problem was a “particularly bad problem” this year, said Michelle Leinfelder-Miles, San Joaquin County Farm Advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension in Stockton.

“A lot of farmers were affected,” and the pest population was “a lot higher than it has been” in recent years, said Leinfelder-Miles.

It was a problem in the springtime, but is no longer the case this time as the weather has gotten warmer for the pest to thrive in the fields.

“Alfalfa is a crop that’s sold for its vegetative matter. It’s a forage crop, so it’s the leaf that matters. And so any kind of insects feeding that will damage the vegetative growth of the plant can ultimately reduce yield to the grower,” Leinfelder-Miles explained.

On the entomology side of this issue, “the pest can be more challenging for some years than others,” she added.

This is a topic that she and her colleagues have written about extensively in March and April. These blogs can be accessed by visiting http://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum+10373. The blogs were produced by several farm advisors through the state.

The “severe outbreaks” earlier this year of blue alfalfa aphid reported in the San Joaquin Valley as well as other locations in the Golden State prompted the informational meeting in mid-May in Riverside County where farm experts met in a regional meeting to discuss the problem. The meeting was “designed to provide an interactive forum to exchange information, experience and develop background evidence to increase our understanding of this outbreak and prepare for the future.”

Rothlin greatly mourned the fact that he felt his hands were tied when it came to dealing with the blue alfalfa aphid that beset his fields in the spring.

“The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is restricting all, or most, of the good chemicals. You can’t use them anymore; the (situation) keeps getting worse every year. All you can do is cut” whatever is left of the crop, Rothlin vehemently said.

It’s the same problem with the other problems that farmers face, such as gophers, he noted.

“We don’t have gopher baits either, baits that kill the gopher. EPA doesn’t care crap about the farmer. EPA stinks. The government has created a monster, for all the crap farmers have to go through. Hit them (the gophers) with a shovel – that’s about what you have left,” Rothlin said.

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