Much as professional historians talked of a post-1989 world after the fall of communism and a post-9/11 world after the attacks on the Twin Towers, Ron Smith speaks of a post-1996 world in terms of cotton insect control in the Deep South.

As Smith, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s long-serving cotton entomologist, sees it, 1996 was the year that changed everything.  

It not only changed the way producers dealt with cotton pests, but also challenged the way they look at the two most critical facets of insect control: tools and management — in other words, the technologies growers use to control insects versus the crop management practices they employ to reduce the likelihood of pest outbreaks.

Before 1996, growers had looked at tools and management as either/or propositions; after 1996, they’ve tended to look at them as two sides of the same coin.

What ended as a watershed year for growers will also be remembered as one of extreme desperation — the year that farmers and insect-control experts such as Smith were forced to think the unthinkable: whether cotton could continue to be grown profitably in the Deep South.

Since the late 1970s, farmers had relied on pyrethroids as their standby of cotton-insect control. Their introduction not only resolved the delayed maturity of cotton plants caused by the applications of phosphates, but also freed growers of crop management concerns, such as preserving beneficial insects to help with tobacco budworm control.

“The era of pyrethroids was probably the most extended era we ever had [with cotton insect control],” Smith says. “We didn’t need a lot of management because we now had the tools to cover everything and to control everything.

“Yields improved tremendously.”

However, by the mid-1990s, pyrethroids were losing their effectiveness on tobacco budworms, one of the most virulent cotton pests. In addition, sucking pests, such as spider mites, aphids and whiteflies re-emerged as significant problems, Smith says.