The fall army worm has turned from a minor pest to a multi-million dollar menace to Virginia's farmers this year, adding costly insult to injury already suffered from drought and low prices.

In Louis Moore's corn field here in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, "spodoptera frugiperda" has eaten ears until nothing remains in the husk but an ugly brown mush. Stalks have been stripped of foliage and even cut in half in this field of late corn and in others all over Virginia and states to the south.

Fields of newly planted alfalfa and rye have been chewed down to bare earth in three or four days as the worm has exploded in numbers not seen in 40 years, according to agricultural experts who estimate the total loss in the state at $40 million.

Dr. Robert D. Jackson, a staff scientist for the U.S. Agriculture Department's research service, said the army worm "has been giving us hell in the Southeast this year. I don't believe historically we have ever been this bad."

The fall army worm - not to be confused with its cousin, the "true" army worm, which is a spring pest - reached Virginia in the innocent guise of a small, dirty white moth.

They come every year from their breeding grounds in Florida and the Gulf Coast states, hopping ever northward as new generations hatch every 30 days.

Normally they are not a major problem in Virginia, although they may do $150 million damage nationally, with most of it concentrated in the Deep South.

But this year has been different. The moths arrived earlier and in greater numbers than normal and each female laid about 1,000 eggs. Eggs hatched into the greasy brown worms, marked by an inverted "Y" on their heads, which grow to about 1 1/2 inches and eat voraciously. They then burrow into the ground in pupa stage before emerging as moths to lay another 1,000 eggs.

The natural controls that usually check the worm population failed this year and entomologists have several theories as to why.

First, said Dr. James E. Roberts, a VPI insect specialist, the extreme cold last winter cut down the local population of such things as stink bugs, ground beetles and tachinid flies, which attack the worms.

Then came an early, warm spring that gave the moths an early start north.

Next came a double irony. The drought, which cut severely into the Virginia corn crop, also limited the development and spread of common viruses, fungi and bacteria that kill the worm. These organisms, which are harmless to man, need moisture to thrive, said Dr. William A. Allen of VPPI.

The drought hurt early planted corn that was untouched by the worm. Late corn, planted in June, got enough rain for a fair crop but got hit by the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]

And farmers, rushing to make up for a poor spring hay crop and a bad summer corn crop, began to plant alfalfa and rye in September, just as the army worm invasion peaked. In many cases, the worms decimated the seedlings before the farmers knew they had a problem.

Now they are being advised to wait for a frost to kill the worms before planting the fall grasses, that are one of the worms" favorite foods.

But tis creates a further complication - the later the planting, the smaller the crop. The Virginia farmer, already suffering from crop loss and poor prices resulting from a record national harvest, faces what VPI's Allen calls "a management problem."

VPI extension agent Bob Tudor said one hard hit farmer called him several days ago and asked, 'Can you predict tornados?' He said a tornado was the only thing that hadn't happened to him this year."

The worms can be sprayed with malathion or methomyl, but they are hard to kill and spraying is expensive.

Louis Moore Sr. hired an airplane to spray his corn and still lost it.

"We put this corn out to make up for the hay we didn't make," said Moore. "I've farmed here for 40 years and never had a problem with these things."

Moore's son, Louis Jr., whose great, great grandfather was the first family member on this land, said "We had some cousins down from New Jersey and we walked in to look at the corn and there they were. I noticed something had been eating on the leaves and looked closer and saw the worms.

As the Moores pulled ears from bare stalks and tore away the shucks to reveal the ravished kernels, small white moths flitted about, seemingly unrelated to the devastation.

"We're preaching early detection," said Allen, "One of the problems was that our farmers were not familiar with the fall army moth and another is that farmers have to do a lot of things at once. It's a matter of getting out and looking for the worms. Once you spot them you have to take immediate countermeasures."

About the only consolation for farmers like the Moores is that cold weather will kill the army worm in all of its life stages and the pest will retreat to its Florida-Gulf Coast habitat.

Next year will be a new year, more normal conditions may return and the fall army worm may not thrive here for another 40 years, entomologists said.

But extension agent Tudor cautioned, "It looks like we're in a period of uniqueness."