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New Start in South Texas

“But farmers are eternal optimists,” says Mercedes, Texas, farmer Bobby Sparks just after he finished planting 3,000 acres of cotton. Since it is impossible to control water or weather, Sparks will “take serious measures to control weevils,” he says. “We have to or South Texas will be out of the cotton business.”

Yields are significantly higher where there are no weevils, so growers who have eradicated them can afford to sell cotton for 50 cents a bale. South Texas growers have to get 68 cents to break even.

March was perfect for planting, and Sparks had all his cottonseed in the ground by the middle of the month. This is the first year that cotton producers have been committed to a voluntary three-week planting window that ended in mid-March. A uniform planting date is an important component of a voluntary boll weevil suppression program instigated this year in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Last year, when weevils devastated the south Texas cotton crop, growers realized a hit and miss campaign would not work; they need a combined effort to get results.

Putting old grievances and mistakes of the past behind them, growers formed a new South Texas Cotton and Grain Producers Association. Sparks worked with Andy Scott of Rio Farms and Tom Kilgore of South Texas Planting Seed to jump-start the organization, which has established areas where farmers voluntarily try to suppress the weevil.

“It can be done,” says Sparks, “but it has to be done right. And every grower down here has to buy into it.”

From the looks of things, it’s working. Cottonseed is in the ground, and growers are looking toward the second component of the plan—spraying insecticide early, at pinhead square stage. Since growers are planting in a narrow window, all the cotton will reach the same stage at approximately the same time.

Monitoring weevil activity throughout the year is also part of the voluntary plan. Sparks checks two trap lines weekly and reports to Scott, who compiles the information and makes it available to other farmers, so they will know the peak times to spray.

The voluntary plan also calls for farmers to spray insecticide at defoliation. Combining the two operations seems to provide the best results. Growers also are watching tests with the new sticky boards, to see if it would be advantageous to place these traps, which can collect thousands of weevils, in the field at defoliation.

The last component of the plan comes into play after harvest when all plants must be plowed under or chemically destroyed so the weevils’ food is taken away.

Sparks says some “naysayers feel our suppression plan can’t work when Mexican growers are not part of it.” But he’s convinced that it is still possible to suppress the weevil by diligent spraying—especially around the edges of a farmer’s property.

Sparks also believes that Mexico is watching Texas. “They saw how miserably our eradication efforts failed some years back, and they’re taking a ‘wait and see’ attitude. If we can prove our voluntary plan to be successful, they’ll follow suit.”

Mexicans aren’t the only ones taking an interest in this program. “Growers in other parts of Texas want us to succeed, too.” South Texas is where the weevil came into the United States. And, though other parts of Texas have been successful in eradication, growers know that weevils could find their way north again.

Sparks grew up on the farm and was picking cotton when he was twelve years old. He’s been a full-time farmer now for 25 years—long enough to see the ups and downs in the business. Since everyone is working together trying to solve the problems, he is enthusiastic about this year’s crop.

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