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Lao farmers stand to lose millions of kip from caterpillar infestation

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A fall armyworm damages a corn crop. A female fall armyworm moth can lay eggs 10 times and then die. Each time she lays 100 eggs. The moth can fly about 100km in one day. AFP

Lao farmers stand to lose millions of kip from caterpillar infestation

Sweetcorn farmer Sengchanh Vilaylak has incurred losses to the tune of more than 20 million kip ($2,300) this year after his crop was severely impacted by the current epidemic of fall armyworms in Laos’ Xayaboury province.

Sengchanh’s family is among the 150 who plant corn as their primary commercial crop, a significant source of income for the people of Paklai district’s Saenphon village.

However, the caterpillars have invaded their crops, causing devastating losses.

Sengchanh, 49, told Vientiane Times he had invested more than 8.5 million kip in planting sweetcorn on 2ha. The money was spent on seeds, preparing land and clearing weeds. He used the savings of his entire family for this project.

Nevertheless, he still considers himself luckier than other villagers who have mostly taken out loans from sweetcorn traders or banks if they can meet the lending requirements.

These people are now staring at difficult times as they are soon going to have to repay their mounting debts.

This year has brought bad luck for all sweetcorn growers in Saenphon village as they have encountered unprecedented problems.

Sengchanh has assessed his crop losses at between 70 and 80 per cent. He expects to get a yield of only five tonnes this season.

This means his family will receive little return from their investment. They are waiting for the harvest in October and hoping to make a profit from selling the crop then. However, adding to their worries are the fall armyworms, which have severely affected the family’s financial plans.

Last year, Sengchanh’s family harvested about 20 tonnes of sweetcorn and sold the crop for more than 1,600 kip per kilogramme, earning a total of about 32 million kip. But this year they will receive only eight million kip.

He expected this year’s sale price to be better with lower supplies expected.

Sengchanh is the vice head of the village. His main job is the cultivation of rice and sweetcorn. He said the money he earns from corn is vital as it helps him pay all the household bills and takes care of other expenses, including his children’s education.

The Saenphon community, comprising 167 families, is one of seven villages in Paklai district, which has been hit worst by the epidemic. The outbreak was first detected in May before spreading to all 11 districts in the province.

When he realised he was heading for a smaller harvest in October, Sengchanh planned to plant beans and peanuts as well, as these provide a quick economic return.

This is the first time his family and farmers across Xayaboury province have had to deal with an outbreak of caterpillars. It has been hard for them to control it because there hasn’t been any prolonged rainfall.

The hot dry weather not only favours the pests but is also slowing the growth of sweetcorn.

When the farmers sprayed insecticide, they killed only the caterpillars that were eating the corn, not the young ones lodged inside the folds of the leaves.

Heavy rainfall could kill the baby caterpillars hiding inside the leaves, but there has been little or no rain for almost a month. And now the crop is beginning to dry, Sengchanh said.

Agriculture officials confirmed that rain could help curb the spread of the caterpillars.

Sengchanh has decided to stop taking control measures as almost his entire crop has been affected. Unfortunately, not all neighbouring farmers attempted to kill the invading pests, which hampered his efforts.

He has been farming for more than 20 years, but has never witnessed such an epidemic of fall armyworms before.

According to a senior official at the Xayaboury provincial Agriculture and Forestry Department, the fall armyworms originated in a tropical area of the US and then spread to other countries.

A female moth can lay eggs 10 times and then die. Each time she lays 100 eggs. The moth can fly about 100km in one day. VIENTIANE TIMES/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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