Fifty years ago, a response to chronic insect problems not only changed the face of cotton farming in the South, but also provided thousands of young people with the means to complete their college education.

For decades, farmers had been battling the boll weevil along with other pests — an effort that called for an arsenal of pesticides that were expensive and, as some scientists were beginning to fear, potentially harmful to the environment.

“These pesticides were not what you would consider expensive today in pesticide terms, but when you had to make 15 applications a season, the costs added up,” says Ron Smith, a retired Alabama Cooperative Extension System cotton entomologist who both witnessed and developed several of the strategies put in place to contain weevils and other destructive crop pests.

In the late 1950s, chlorinated hydrocarbons were the standby materials among cotton products — chemicals that had been shown to linger for a long time in the environment. In environmental terms, things improved several years later when chlorinated hydrocarbons were replaced with a new family of phosphate pesticides. But there was a tradeoff: While these chemicals proved safer for the environment, they posed a threat to human applicators.

Cotton research had already revealed that well-timed applications were more effective — a practice that also contributed to fewer applications. But this required a careful monitoring of fields to determine when pest population levels were high enough to require treatment with pesticides. However, farmers, because of other pressing demands during the growing season, did not have much time to invest in monitoring for cotton pests.

That’s when a group of land-grant university Extensions educators at the University of Arkansas got creative. The strategy they developed to deal with persistent pest problems is known today as cotton scouting.

In time, the concept spread as rapidly and as widely throughout cotton fields as boll weevils and was adopted as a standard practice by land-grant universities throughout the South.

The concept behind cotton scouting is simple.

Typically working with their local county Extension agent, cotton growers would pool their resources to hire someone to monitor their fields throughout the growing season. In the majority of cases, these monitors turned out to be local undergraduate and graduate students at the state land-grant university.

The concept proved to be a win/win scenario both for the growers and for the student: Farmers secured a dedicated scout, while the student typically earned enough money to pay the next year’s tuition and many of the accompanying expenses.

But while the money was good, the working hours were quite a different matter.

Prospective scouts were first subjected to rigorous training that typically lasted two and a half days.

“One day in the classroom and at least one and a half days in the field,” Smith recalls.

“They learned everything from helping farmers calibrate insecticide equipment to learning how to identify cotton insects in the field,” Smith says.

Following training, the newly accredited scouts were assigned a county and went to work.

And work they did. Hours typically ranged from sunup to sundown, as the scouts monitored field after field, five days a week.

“Each scout typically was assigned around 1,200 acres for the season,” says Roy Ledbetter, a retired Alabama Cooperative Extension System administrator who served as the cotton entomologist and was assigned overall responsibility for the cotton scouting program from 1962 until 1972.

Scouts spent the entire growing season assigned to these counties, living in housing assigned by the local Extension agent, he says.

Under the old Auburn University quarter system, the student’s schedules meshed especially well with farmer needs.

From the beginning, scouting was all about percentages, namely, determining the percentages of weevils and other pests detected in each field.

“If the numbers of boll weevils, for example, exceeded the designated percentage — 10 percent — this indicated the field needed to be treated with a pesticide,” Smith says.

As part of their assigned duties, scouts were required to provide each farmer with a weekly report on the pest levels detected in each field, Ledbetter recalls.

Auburn University was one of the first land-grant universities to develop formal scouting training for aspiring students willing to spend their summers trudging through cotton fields ferreting out signs of boll weevils and other pests.

Walter Grimes, who was then serving as the Alabama Cooperative Extension entomologist in Auburn, and who was close friends with his counterpart in Arkansas, saw a future for cotton scouting in Alabama.

“Cotton was king in Alabama at the time and the boll weevils were very destructive pests, and one of my jobs as an entomologist was to take the research generated at land-grant universities such as Auburn and translate it into a form that would benefit farmers,” he recalls.

Grimes perceived the cotton scouting technique developed at Arkansas as an effective way to translate these insights into practical benefits, providing farmers were willing to pay for the service.

Max Bass, then a doctoral student in entomology at Auburn, recalls the visit from F.S. Arant, head of AU Entomology, in May 1959, that resulted in his becoming the state’s first cotton scout.

“Dr. Arant ranked somewhere above God at that time and didn’t pay social calls on graduate students,” recounts Bass, who originally had planned to work for a chemical company that summer.

But that was before Arant informed him growers were willing to pay a dollar an acre for every scouted field.

Feeling flattered and somewhat overwhelmed by Arant’s vote of confidence, he took the job and was dispatched to Pickens County, where he was paid $500 a month for three months.

“That was in 1959, and I was in high cotton — literally,” Bass recalls.

Ledbetter says the program grew rapidly and by the late 1960s functioned in more than 15 counties throughout the state and employed more than 120 scouts.

In addition to allowing hundreds of students to complete their undergraduate and even graduate educations and helping thousands of growers reap substantial savings in chemical costs, cotton scouting also resulted in steep reductions in chemical applications, which, in turn, led to lasting benefits for the environment.

Smith attributes the program’s long-term success to its ability to change with the times, adjusting techniques to address new and emerging pests as well as the individual needs of cotton farmers.