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Weevil campaign back on track

The campaign to eliminate the boll weevil as a pest of cotton in the United States appears to be back on track following passage of a referendum to begin the maintenance phase of eradication in Mississippi's Region 1A.

It was the third time growers in Leflore, Quitman, Sunflower, Tunica and west Tallahatchie Counties in the north Delta had voted on the referendum. The first, in June, produced a favorable vote of 55 percent, and the second, in August, 65.95 percent, neither of which satisfied the 66.67 percent requirement for passage.

In the latest, 89 percent of the growers and landlords casting ballots in 1A voted for the maintenance program, the highest approval rating recorded for an eradication referendum in Mississippi.

Some credited the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce's warning that it would quarantine cotton produced in the region if another vote failed with providing the impetus for passage. That may be, although such threats typically tend to work against approval in highly charged situations. It's more likely the rise in cotton prices while farmers were voting and this year's higher cotton yields were responsible.

Roger Carter, a consultant from Clayton, La., in the Louisiana Delta, referred to the latter in his weekly newsletter. “The Boll Weevil Eradication Program contributed immensely to our yields,” he wrote. “We're now making cotton in the top that we didn't make prior to boll weevil eradication.”

In every referendum, opponents have argued they didn't spend enough money on boll weevil control to justify the $22 to $35 an acre they would be charged for eradication. But, in almost every case, yields have gone up after the program reduced weevil numbers.

Opponents have also complained about high salaries paid to program employees, the purchase of new trucks for program supervisors, lack of response to complaints about scouts, failure to spray quickly enough in areas with high trap captures, etc.

No program involving as many part-time employees and covering as many acres as the BWEP will be problem-free. The complaints notwithstanding, the program has been hugely successful, as witnessed by the fact that only one boll weevil was found in the eradicated area east of the Mississippi-Alabama line in 2003.

The failure to pass the maintenance referendum in regions 1A and 1B on the first try was troubling to eradication proponents who were concerned that all the effort of the past five years in the north Delta could be wasted.

Some entomologists were also worried about the amount of boll weevil spraying that might be required if the area became re-infested with the pest. That and the still contentious situation where the program was just initiated in northeast Arkansas gave some pause that the national effort to eliminate the weevil could be disrupted.

The passage of the latest referendum in Region 1A and the reports of successful spraying in the two northeast Arkansas counties should go a long way toward easing those fears.

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