Quebec farmers say they're facing a cutworm infestation like they've never seen

Farmer Matthieu Mauduit shows a canola plant cut by cutworms to agronomist Josée Falardeau.  (Bianca Sickini-Joly/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Farmer Matthieu Mauduit shows a canola plant cut by cutworms to agronomist Josée Falardeau. (Bianca Sickini-Joly/Radio-Canada - image credit)

An unusual infestation of cutworms is wreaking havoc in fields in Abitibi-Témiscamingue.

Témiscamingue, in northwestern Quebec, has been especially affected by the damage caused by cutworms — caterpillars that can destroy canola, potato and grain crops in a matter of days.

Cutworms are found every year in small quantities in market gardens. But producers are saying the insects have destroyed large areas of plants sown at the beginning of June, something they don't normally see.

"I don't think that in Quebec we have ever seen this level of infestation," said agronomist Josée Falardeau.

The agronomist says she's received calls from producers from Abitibi, Que., to Sudbury, Ont.

Cutworms are moth larvae that feed at night and hide in the soil during the day.
Cutworms are moth larvae that feed at night and hide in the soil during the day.

Cutworms are moth larvae that feed at night and hide in the soil during the day. (Bianca Sickini-Joly/Radio-Canada)

"The scale of the areas affected and the level of damage, I find that it is truly epidemiological," she added.

The company she works for has treated 6,000 acres of infested area so far, Falardeau said.

Discouraged farmers

Farmer Matthieu Mauduit had the unpleasant surprise a few days ago of finding his canola plants cut and eaten by worms.

Farmer Mathieu Mauduit holds canola leaves devoured by cutworms in his right hand.
Farmer Mathieu Mauduit holds canola leaves devoured by cutworms in his right hand.

Farmer Matthieu Mauduit holds canola leaves devoured by cutworms in his right hand. (Bianca Sickini-Joly/Radio-Canada)

The farmer, who cultivates nearly 800 acres in Témiscamingue, hopes to be able to save part of his plants in the municipality of Lorrainville, although he already estimates his losses to be $65,000, which represents between 25 and 30 per cent of his harvest.

"It's sad. We work hard. We already know that it is complicated to be a farmer," Mauduit said. "It's very mentally demanding, especially in recent years," he said, noting that since he started farming three years ago, he's had to cope with a drought as well as the infestation.

In Rouyn-Noranda, the region's largest city, Jessica Lambert lost a quarter of her beet plants and sections of carrots because of cutworms.

"They were the beets that I planned to put in my first baskets, and it has to be said, when you make vegetable baskets, the first baskets are the most difficult to produce," said Lambert, co-owner of the organic market garden farm Le Potager Jaseur.

Jessica Lambert — co-owner of Le Potager Jaseur — stands beside a row of beets she replanted after a cutworm infestation.
Jessica Lambert — co-owner of Le Potager Jaseur — stands beside a row of beets she replanted after a cutworm infestation.

Jessica Lambert — co-owner of Le Potager Jaseur — stands beside a row of beets she replanted after a cutworm infestation. (Submitted by Jessica Lambert)

Lambert said the infestation ended on its own after she manually removed about 100 caterpillars.

Next year, she plans to protect herself from cutworm outbreaks by buying natural predators.

What's a cutworm?

Cutworms have been ravaging fields in Témiscamingue.
Cutworms have been ravaging fields in Témiscamingue.

Cutworms have been ravaging fields in Témiscamingue. (Jessica Gélinas/Radio-Canada)

Cutworms are a family of insects that turn into moths. In Témiscamingue, Falardeau identified between four and five species.

The caterpillars hide underground during the day. At night, they are visible in the fields when using a flashlight, feeding on the base of plants and leaves.

The historic drought of last summer and the mild temperatures of winter may have created favourable conditions for their survival.

Cutworms are usually present in the spring for three weeks. But some species have two life cycles and might continue to damage crops. Potato crops are especially vulnerable and would need to be monitored throughout the summer.

And the pests might reappear next spring in the region, depending on the weather.

"My fear is that this will continue. It could be cycles of two or three years, which can return if the conditions are there," Falardeau said.