Texas leaders call the recent announcement of total eradication of the pink bollworm, a big milestone and a big day for U.S. cotton.
“This is something we’ve been working at a long time,” says Lindy Patton, president and CEO of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. “Texas was the first state to a start a pink bollworm eradication program and I think the success we had here helped other states decide they wanted to do the same thing.”
Oct. 19, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the pink bollworm “has been eliminated from all cotton-producing areas of the continental United States.” Pinkies, as they are often called, have cost U.S. producers tens of millions of dollars in annual control costs and yield losses.
“It was a difficult and expensive pest to deal with,” says Larry Turnbough, a Pima cotton grower in Reeves County, Texas, who remembers fighting the pest with his father Richard V. Turnbough.
As for the recent announcement, he says he’s “tickled to death.”
“The eradication effort has made it possible for us to keep farming, whereas, if we were still fighting the pink bollworm, with the price of cotton and inputs today, we probably wouldn’t even still be growing cotton -- Pima for sure. It would have been difficult on Upland cotton as well.”
In conjunction with the eradication, the quarantine restricting the transport of cottonseed across state lines without first being fumigated, also has been lifted. “It was a big expense and put our growers at a slight disadvantage to growers elsewhere who didn’t have the quarantine or pink bollworm,” says Patton.
Turnbough, who has served on the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Board of Directors for more than 20 years, calls the lift a big deal. He says removing the quarantine will enable cotton gins in his area to sell cottonseed in other states such as west into Arizona dairies, where they are paying more for seed due to the limited supply.
“I don’t know how much that will change things but at least it opens up the market where people can move equipment and move product back and forth without restrictions,” says Turnbough.
Something, Patton agrees, “is good for all of Texas cotton.”
A bit of history
While the pink bollworm was first detected in Hearne, Texas, in 1917, the dry-climate pest thrived and caused considerable damage in the desert region of the El Paso, Trans-Pecos area, according to Larry Smith, Texas Boll Weevil program director.
Pinkies were not only adapted to the arid climate but the long-stapled, Pima cotton grown in the region.
“It was their number one pest, even more so than the boll weevil,” says Patton. “The pinkies gave them fits and caused much more damage. They had to do a lot of spraying back before we started eradicating them.”
Turnbough recalls spraying five or six times a year for the pest. “We had to monitor them daily. We had to run traps every night to see how bad they were because they lay eggs inside the boll and the larvae hatch inside the boll and eat, so you don’t really have a chance to spray them like you would conventional worms. You have to catch the adults before they ever mate and lay eggs.
“It was a difficult and expensive pest to deal with.”
The Texas eradication program began with pheromone mating disruption to reduce populations followed by a bombardment of sterile moths, “Which really finished them off,” says Smith.
Daily, millions of sterile moths were dropped from an airplane, about 500 feet above the cotton fields. “We would sterilize those at a lab in Phoenix, Arizona, and fly those in each day and drop an overwhelming population over the El Paso Valley which eventually led to no pinkies,” says Patton.
But the eradication program wasn’t only for the El Paso region. The pinkies eventually migrated into the High and Rolling Plains and the St. Lawrence area, says Smith. But Bt cotton production, along with “decent winters,” in those regions, helped cut off the flow of the bollworms, which helped eradication statewide.
Fort Hancock, Texas, grower and former Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation board member Jim Ed Miller, says growing up, he can remember, “all summer long, about daylight,” hearing airplanes flying, spraying for pink bollworms.
“Fabens Airport was our closest airport,” recalls the 70-year-old farmer. “There used to be three airplanes there all the time doing business. Today, if you want to spray something with an airplane, you’ve got to call an airplane in and they come from somewhere else because they can’t make a living in Fabens.
“Now, that is a praise report deluxe, in my opinion.”
Miller, was present in March of 1993 when after a failed attempt in 1991, Texas Governor Ann Richards signed the boll weevil eradication bill. He also served as head of the Boll Weevil Eradication Committee, testifying before Congress.
Takes a village
Eradicating the pink bollworm was a slow process that involved many different people and agencies, including Mexico growers, USDA APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) and U.S. growers, who Turnbough says “were willing to pay pretty big dues to fund it.” And while he says there were a lot of rough days and obstacles to overcome, he credits the staff of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation along with state and federal aid for helping Texas growers complete the eradication process.
“It’s a good thing,” says Turnbough of the completion. But one thing he laments, is that his dad, who passed away 17 years ago, and many like him, who struggled and fought the pink bollworm so long ago, aren’t here today to see the benefits, all the while there will be a generation who never even knew the pest was even an issue.
“But to complete it -- Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and northern part of Mexico -- that’s a pretty good accomplishment.”