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The boll weevil: Inspiration for drought-stressed growers

Surveying drought damage throughout Alabama and particularly in the sun-parched Tennessee Valley, disaster is about the only word farmers can apply to the situation.

Yet, if history provides any consolation, it's that farmers have looked disaster squarely in the eye before and prevailed by thinking on their feet and working together for a common solution, says one expert.

At Auburn University, Ron Smith, Extension entomologist and emeritus professor of entomology, has just completed a history of the boll weevil in Alabama. Much like today's prolonged drought, the pest presented farmers with a set of circumstances that appeared exceedingly grim, if not insurmountable.

“Some historians have stated that cotton played a major role in religion, politics, laws, economics and art of the South,” Smith writes. “If this is true, then the boll weevil could safely be referred to as second only to the Civil War as the most important influence on Southern society, history and culture.”

In fact, there was no rival to the boll weevil in terms of the damage it wrought to the Southern economy, which already was reeling from the effects of four years of civil war.

The first reaction among farmers following the pest's onslaught was disbelief and despair, Smith says.

“In 1917, the first year the weevil was found statewide in Alabama, cotton planting declined by more than a million acres from previous years,” he says.

Farmers resorted to all kinds of practices to combat the weevils — everything from pinching off adult weevils from infected squares and drowning them in kerosene to spraying them with carbolic acid and even burning off the cotton fields at the end of the season to reduce their populations by the next growing season.

Burning woodlands adjacent to cotton fields helped some. On the other hand, government-sponsored quarantines proved ineffective.

Farming was far too central to the Southern economy for farmers simply to walk away and find work in towns and cities. Something had to be done.

It's often said that necessity is the mother of invention. That was certainly the case with the boll weevil. Indeed, the presence of the boll weevil played a critical role in the formation of both the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

The intense desperation among farmers in the wake of the boll weevil's destructive path prompted the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) to hire its first entomologist, Warren E. Hines, in 1910. Hines eventually turned to the growing network of farm demonstration agents for help with efforts to control the pest — a concept that already had proven successful in weevil-infested Texas.

In addition to teaching farmers advanced farming techniques, these demonstration agents also encouraged them to diversify their operations and to adopt scientifically proven methods for controlling boll weevils based on proven scientific methods. Meanwhile, the Alabama Legislature assisted these efforts with legislation supporting an Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station and additional legislation providing funding to support the demonstration agents' travels throughout the state.

“Even before the passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which formally established Cooperative Extension work, Alabama farmers had the support and interaction of trained agriculturists, thanks to the boll weevil,” Smith says.

The recommendations associated with boll weevil control led to a variety of new farming methods, many of which are used today, Smith says, including cotton scouting, crop diversification — perhaps most notably the introduction of peanuts in southeast Alabama — aerial spraying and an arsenal of new insecticides.

It took almost three-quarters of a century before farmers, working closely with land-grant university researchers and Extension educators, banished the boll weevil as a serious cotton pest.

While no one can predict what will follow in the aftermath of prolonged drought, Smith says farmers at least should derive some inspiration from their fathers' and grandfathers' success battling the boll weevil.

“Sometimes, good follows disaster — a lesson learned from the success farmers finally had in eradicating the boll weevil,” Smith says.

Just as some good eventually followed the boll weevil's onslaught, Smith hopes that good things ultimately will follow this year's prolonged drought.

“Hopefully some good will come out of this,” he says. “We may end up with a better crop insurance system and with federally sponsored programs to assist with irrigation.”

Smith says another hopeful development is the advent of a new line of transgenic cotton engineered to withstand the effects of drought, which already is under study on test plots in Mississippi.

“We're in the tunnel now, and we can't see the light at the end of it, but farmers felt very much the same way a century ago in the wake of the boll weevil,” he says.

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