Chicago — If Merrill Brown has his figures right, an outbreak of grasshoppers is when you have an average eight or more of them per square yard. There are almost that many in Mr. Brown's fields, but he is fortunate. Other farmers in southern Idaho have been counting up to 100 grasshoppers per square yard, he says.
''It's very severe,'' says the farmer from Hammett, Idaho, of the infestation that has hit parts of Idaho and nearby states.
It's so severe, in fact, that Idaho and at least one other state, South Dakota, have requested federal help.
This week Agriculture Secretary John Block visited southern Idaho and declared an emergency. This move freed up funds so spraying could begin this week in the state.
Unfortunately, the action may be too little, too late.
''It's like trying to shut the barn door after the cow was let out,'' says Terry Jones, a dairy farmer in Emmett, Idaho. ''When we holler today, we don't want to wait six weeks for a solution.''
At the root of the situation is federal ownership of land in Western states. In Idaho, the United States owns 62 percent, according to Mike Brush, special assistant to Idaho Gov. John V. Evans (D). Most of that is range land - and a breeding place for grasshoppers.
The land is administered by the Bureau of Land Management within the US Interior Department. But the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has had a longstanding agreement to take measures to combat insects when significant infestation of farmers' fields appeared imminent.
Usually, such measures aren't necessary, because cold spells in the spring kill large numbers of young grasshoppers before they become a problem. But weather conditions were ideal for a large population this spring. Once the grasshoppers finished off the foliage in the range land, they began moving into farmers' fields.
In early June, the division of USDA responsible for monitoring such outbreaks (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) became aware of the situation, according to a USDA spokeswoman. But a contingency fund to take care of such matters had run out of money, and the inspection service said it could not pay for spraying.
The result: farmers' urgent pleas for action went virtually unheeded until USDA freed up $400,000 to pay for spraying of roughly 100,000 acres of federal land bordering farm fields.
That sum, which would have been effective six to eight weeks ago, is now ''a drop in the bucket,'' Jones says.
Several issues remain to be resolved.
Who should be responsible for protecting farmers from insects on federal land? In this instance, Jones thinks that the governor should have stepped in with more help, instead of making ''a political football'' out of the situation.
But Mr. Brush, assistant to the governor, disagrees: ''Deep down there's a concern that what we're seeing is a change in federal policy in managing its lands.''
Currently, the USDA and the Bureau of Land Management are discussing ways to amend their agreement on controlling insects on federal land, a USDA spokeswoman says, but it's too early to tell what will emerge.
Another issue is whether federal lands should be sprayed with chemicals at all. Leslie Kish, associate professor of entymology at the University of Idaho, is working on one of many biological alternatives to chemical pesticides.
But any commercial application of his work is 10 to 20 years away, he says, and even then would be used in conjunction with chemical spraying.