Slugs, Tomatoes And New Frontiers In Farm Research
By Russell E. Eshleman Jr.
Inquirer Staff Writer
Wednesday, Aug 15 1999 The Philadelphia Inquirer

PINE GROVE MILLS, Pa. — Got slugs on your broccoli or troubles with your tomatoes?

If you’re looking for a culprit, it might be society’s renewed emphasis on health and the environment. A key area of work by scientists here at Penn State University’s 1,500-acre Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center, where 50,000 people will come this week as part of Ag Progress Days, is how to solve problems created by this new emphasis.

The three-day agricultural exposition that opened yesterday in Centre County, a sort of outdoors version of the Pennsylvania Farm Show held in Harrisburg each year, highlights the development of new equipment, farming practices and research.

And the research involves everything from finding new uses for discarded mushroom soil (a combination of horse manure, corn cobs and hay) to whether prairie grass from New Zealand might someday make a useful forage for Pennsylvania.

Enter the slug. Consider the tomato. Both are objects of current research projects.

Steve Jacobs, a university entomologist, said efforts in recent years to deter soil erosion has increased farmers’ problems with slugs, those ugly little creatures that resemble snails without shells.

"Slugs produce a slime they actually glide on," said Jacobs. "You can see the tracks on your sidewalks or plants." It’s not slug slime that bothers farmers. It’s the slugs’ appetite.

Slugs enjoy munching on stuff like corn, cabbage, peppers and broccoli, and recent tillage practices designed to preserve topsoil have made slugs thrive.

"In one sense, we solved one problem and created another," said. Jacobs.

In addition to the new soil-saving methods, another reason for the abundance of slugs is the scarcity of effective slug pesticides.

Scientists here are hoping to find a new slug combatant for farmers that, in many ways, works as well as remedies that have proven to help home-owners.

The most popular anti-slug control method used by amateurs is a pie pan full of stale beer.

Jacobs said slugs are attracted by either the malt or yeast in beer, and when they belly up to the pans, whose rims are flush with the soil, they fall in and drown.

Apparently any brand will do, said Jacobs, jokingly declining to mention his favorite.

"I don’t think I’d want my beer associated with slug control," he said.

And as researchers here note, beer might work for the backyard gardener, but it would take quite a few kegs to control slugs on a hundred acres of corn.


Agriculture remains Pennsylvania’s largest industry. The state Agriculture Department said the food and agriculture industry accounts for more than $3.3 billion a year in farm income and leads to $32 billion annually in related business activity.

Pennsylvania ranks first nationally in the production of mushrooms (142,391 tons) and potato chips (450 million tons). It also ranks first in the number of pretzel plants (43), commercial slaughter plants (276) and bakeries (7,300).

The state also ranks in the top 10 nationally in products ranging from eggs (5.3 billion) to cream cottage cheese (19,799 tons)’ to turkeys (7.9 million).

The theme of this year’s Ag Progress Days is "Food and Environmental Quality: Preparing for the 21st Century."