As an insect, the boll weevil measures less than an inch. As an economic force, its impact touched thousands of lives, and left more than $100 billion damage in its 100-plus-year march across the Cotton Belt. Ultimately, the insect led farmers to diversification and the advancement of pest management and cooperative eradication efforts.
In Boll Weevil Eradication in the United States Through 1999, more than 50 authors recount the trials and tribulations, the successes and the failures, the politics and the consensus brought on by “the evil thing that dwelleth amongst us.” The epic documentary of man against insect is the sixth volume of the Cotton Foundation Reference Series. Willard A. Dickerson, Anthony L. Brashear, James T. Brumley, Frank L. Carter, William J. Grefenstette and F. Aubrey Harris are editors. Philip B. Haney is the executive editor and publishing coordinator.
It stands as a seminal work on boll weevil eradication efforts in the U.S.
The story of the boll weevil in the U.S. begins in Texas in 1892. Actually, it begins in Mexico, where a former Civil War surgeon first encountered the weevil in 1880, wreaking havoc on the cotton crop 120 miles southwest of Laredo, Texas. It took five years and entomologists from two continents to identify the weevil, but the finding marked the first time that the “little black bug” had been associated with cotton as a host plant. The first written report of the boll weevil comes in 1894 from a Corpus Christi druggist who dispensed crop poisons as well as medicine for the farm folk.
By the time, Leland O. Howard, the USDA acting secretary of agriculture, responded to the druggist with the short but pointed announcement that the insect was “a most undesirable addition to the enemies of the cotton plant, and there is imminent danger that it may spread into other portions of the Cotton Belt,” the decades-long siege of the boll weevil had begun.
In a tale of this magnitude, it's the anecdotes, as well as the people involved, that give perspective to the “war against the weevil.”
After early disregard of the weevil's arrival in sparsely populated south Texas, the state hired an entomologist in 1899. Looking back with 20-20 vision, USDA's Howard wrote in 1909 that perhaps $20,000 would have led to eradication of the pest completely and “prevented its reaching the principal cotton producing portions of the country.” In terms of 2001 money, that $20,000 would equal $378,600.
Early on, USDA entomologists recognized control of the boll weevil was a national, rather than a state problem.
Not even the deliberate actions of state legislatures could stop the spread of the boll weevil. Georgia was the first state to intact quarantine laws prohibiting “cotton seed grown in states of Texas or Louisiana” from being shipped into Georgia without a certificate stating that the cotton seed had been fumigated to kill any boll weevil adults, larva or pupa. By the time this law passed in 1903, the boll weevil had already moved into Louisiana and was well on its way to searing the psyche of cotton farmers from Mississippi to Virginia.
Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Clemson College in 1915 formed the South Carolina Boll Weevil Commission in an effort to prepare for the boll weevil's inevitable appearance in the state. A year later, following a tour of the boll weevil situation in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, the Commission concluded with a meeting in Brookhaven, Miss. The recommendations from that meeting became known as the “Brookhaven Report.” The report was so thorough that the 67th Congress published it as a special Senate document. It should be noted, however, that foresight didn't stop the boll weevil from its march.
Some areas, such as south Alabama, moved away from cotton to other crops such as peanuts. Area farmers in Enterprise, Ala., built a monument to boll weevil (the world's only statue to an insect) the “Herald of Prosperity.”
Meanwhile, farmers were fighting the weevil with cultural practices until USDA scientists developed and tested chemicals that worked. Philip Haney, executive editor of the book, notes that boll weevil control has gone through four historical periods: cultural control, 1892-1918; the inorganic insecticide era of calcium arsenate, 1919-1944; the organic insecticide era of DDT, 1945-1983; and the eradication era, 1984-present.
Farmer-invented contraptions designed to offer relief from the boll weevil marked the early control period. Along the way, USDA researchers were conducting “one of the best planned and most extensive investigations into the life history of a single insect yet published.” Discoveries about the boll weevil set the standard for entomology and agricultural research. The list of notables in the battle against the boll weevil includes three men to whom the book is dedicated: Robert C. Coker of Hartsville, S.C.; Edward F. Knipling; and James R. Brazzel.
Coker and J. F. McLaurin co-authored the 1958 resolution at the National Cotton Council annual meeting calling for the development of technology “to eliminate the boll weevil as a pest of U.S. cotton at the earliest possible date.” Knipling, who with Ray Bushland had in the early 1920s developed the Sterile Insect Technique that was first used to eliminate screwworms, proposed the term “area wide pest management.”
Brazzel, along with L.D. Newsom of Louisiana State University, pioneered research on the diapause phenomenon in boll weevil. His later work at Texas A&M for “diapause control” became the foundation of the modern Boll Weevil Eradication Program.
Offering a farmer perspective, Marshall Grant of Garysburg, N.C., writes tongue-in-cheek that he arrived in the world about the same time the boll weevil made its way to North Carolina. The boll weevil arrived on the Lee-Grant farm in 1924.
As a farmer, Grant figures heavily in the boll weevil's story in North Carolina. The spray group he helped organize in the late 1960s in northeastern North Carolina went a long way in demonstrating the benefits of area-wide treatment of the boll weevil and influenced the first Boll Weevil Eradication Trial being conducted in North Carolina and southeastern Virginia in 1978-1982. Another comparative trial was conducted in Mississippi.
The last historical leg of a more than 100-year battle against what one entomologist termed “the evil spirit that dwelleth amongst us,” the Boll Weevil Eradication Program has reduced weevil damage, particularly in the Southeast, resulting in higher yields and lower pesticide application costs.
As of 2000, boll weevil eradication has been completed on 4.8 million acres, or 31 percent of the total U.S. acreage. The program is currently active on 7.5 million additional acres, with another 2.6 million acres proposed. Only 4 percent of the cotton acreage in the U.S. remained outside of the program in 1999.
Today, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Alabama, along with California and Arizona, have eradicated the boll weevil. Middle Tennessee, east Mississippi and the Southern Rolling Plains of Texas have completed the program. Active eradication efforts are presently taking place in the Mid-South and the Southwest (New Mexico).
Officials believe eradication efforts must extend into Mexico to insure the long-term success of the program.
The book ends with a list of objectives: Coordinated post-eradication activities, with “the establishment and maintenance of one or more buffer zones”; a federal boll weevil quarantine authority; and a perpetual nationwide management authority to ensure that the U.S. remains free of boll weevils.
“Boll Weevil Eradication in the United States Through 1999” is available from the Southeastern Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Suite B, 2424 East South Blvd., Montgomery, Ala. 36116 or the National Cotton Council, P.O. Box 12285, Memphis, Tenn. 38112.