BARNABAS Mabhena, a communal farmer in Bubi district, Matabeleland North province, says he had this year stocked adequate pesticides and was ready to fight any crop-eating pests -- until the fall-armyworm invaded his fields.
The damage the fall-armyworm has caused to his cereal crops, mostly maize, has dampened his hopes of a bumper harvest, although the area has received its fair share of the rains.
The pests bore into the stalk, while also feeding on the foliage, leaving large ragged holes.
"It's just so disappointing to watch the planted maize crops being devoured like this," said Mabhena, a retired teacher at Bubi's Springrange Farm.
"Also, making it more painful is that we were receiving good rains and expecting a good harvest to [help us] forget our hunger woes."
Like many others in the area, they mistook the fall-armyworm to the stock-borer, Mabhena said, adding, "If it was stock-borer, I would have eliminated them, but not this."
From Bubi, Nkayi, Lupane, Hwange, Binga, Umguza and Tsholotsho, the story of the damage the highly polyphagos migratory lepidoteran pest species has caused to the maize crop is extensive.
In Lupane, the fall-army worm has also not spared sorghum.
"It's just a disaster. We have tried different types of pesticides to fight the fall-army worm, but they seem resistant and they also spread quickly in the fields," said Fani Mudimba from Siansundu in Binga under Chief Saba.
"We have resorted to using our own hands to remove them one by one from the maize stalks and the leaves, but still, the following morning they would have multiplied,"
Mudimba and family were in the fields trying to destroy the pests with their hands on each maize stalk when The Standard paid them a visit.
The fall-armyworms are similar in size, greyish in colour and their symptoms can easily be mistaken for the stock-borer pest. According to experts, late planted crops are more prone to attack by the pests.
The name fall-army worm is derived from the pest's feeding habits. The worms eat everything in an area, and once the food supply is exhausted, the entire army moves to the next available food source.
They cause serious leaf damage, and destroy crops in nearly all stages of development.
Unlike stock-borers, the fall-armyworm feeds during the day and night, but is usually most active in the morning or late afternoon.
While other communal farmers like Mudimba and Mabhena were lucky enough to have money to purchase some pesticides to fight the fall-armyworm, for many others like Dala Ndlovu in Makwate village, Bubi, it is a sad tale.
With no money or source of income, relatives or organisations to assist him with money to buy pesticides, Ndlovu, in desperation, said he had even tried using wood ash thinking it would choke the fall-armyworm to death.
Wood ash is a traditional pest control method. It is applied to field crops for protection of vegetables, especially tomatoes against insects.
The ash is also used as a fumigation method to protect stored maize from weevils and grain borers.
"I used the same method [wood ash]we use to protect maize before storage in the granary.
"I thought since [wood ash] is effective in killing pests to protect vegetables against pests and other insect attacks, it could also kill the fall-army worm, but alas," said Ndlovu.
Communal farmers burn lead wood to produce the ash, which is then mixed with maize before storage at the granary. The same ash is sprinkled on planted tomatoes to protect them from insect attacks.
According to agricultural experts, the fall-armyworm was traditionally found in the United States and probably came into the country through imported maize.
Reports say the fall-armyworm was first reported in West and Central Africa. They have reportedly invaded Burundi, Malawi, Zambia and now Matabeleland North destroying planted crops in seven districts of the province.
Former Hwange East legislator, Jealous Sansole's planted crops were also affected by the fall-armyworm.
"They [fall-armyworm] are not responding to the pesticides. I have tried several different chemicals with no success," he said.
"We thought it was the stock-borer but we have been advised it's not. What can we do, we have lost everything."
Binga ward 4 councillor in Sinansengwe, Elmon Mudenda summed up the crisis saying, "it's just a disaster. The government should start mobilising food aid for us."
Farm experts said farmers have no option but to be on the lookout for the fall-armyworm and check their maize crops at least three times daily as "the pests can destroy a whole field in no time".
"It's a new attack, foreign so to say and unexpected and thus the extensive damage so far. Farmers should be vigilant and be on the lookout for the pest. They should inspect their crops at least thrice per day," said Donald Khumalo, former president of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union.
"They must not take anything for granted, and they should quickly report to Agritex for assistance."
Matabeleland North provincial Agritex officer, Dumisani Nyoni, said in some places as much as 80% of crops had been destroyed.
Khumalo warned that the fall-armyworm posed a serious threat to the country's food security at a time the government has pinned its hopes on the command agriculture programme to boost food self-sufficiency after years of successive droughts.
Khumalo added: "It's a serious threat to food security. It's devastating, and if not quickly attended to and eliminated, several farmers will not harvest anything."
State media recently quoted Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development minister, Joseph Made saying the fall-armyworm had mainly attacked Matabeleland North, mostly affecting early planted maize under the command agriculture programme.