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Weevil eradication changing cotton landscape

There's an old saying that you should be careful what you ask for because you might get it. Cotton farmers have been asking to be rid of the boll weevil almost since the day it entered the United States. Now, that that objective is in sight, they're having to deal with the fallout in states like Louisiana.

Bob Odom, Louisiana's commissioner of agriculture and forestry, says cotton has become something of a victim of its own success in his state.

“Our triumph here and across the South over the boll weevil leaves us with a mixed outlook for the future,” says Odom. “The amount of cotton acreage in the South has tripled in the last 10 years.

“The most often told story is that of Georgia. Before eradication there were 300,000 acres of cotton grown in the state. Today they are growing 1.3 million acres. The same story is playing itself out in other states where the boll weevil is rapidly becoming nothing more than a bad memory.

“Add the U.S. picture to world surpluses and the planet is awash in cotton. As a result prices have plunged,” Odom said.

“Locally, boll weevil numbers are approaching zero in most places. This has led to a huge decrease in the need for various weevil-control chemicals and gins are laboring to keep pace with acreage.

Odom said current indications are that Louisiana will approach 900,000 acres of cotton this year, up from 600,000 acres three years ago. “We don't have the ginning capacity to take care of that much cotton.

“In many areas, particularly along the Red River south of Natchitoches, acreage has doubled. There cotton will be stored in modules through next year before the available gins will be able to get to it,” Odom said. “Some gins are attempting to add ginning capacity, but that's not an overnight thing. It's going to be tough to meet the demand.”

Recent prices for cotton have been on the order of 37 cents a pound. Historically, cotton goes for around 60 cents a pound. Many farmers say the only thing that keeps them in cotton this year is the government subsidy program. That program will pay about 52 cents a pound for cotton if the market price stays below 52 cents. Recent market forces indicate that the price will stay well below the 52-cent level.

Aerial application businesses are the most threatened by the eradication program. “Before eradication, aerial applicators were putting 12 to 15 applications of pesticides out in a typical year on every acre of cotton in the state. That has been reduced to three to four applications. Environmentally, that's a very good thing, but in raw numbers that's a 75 percent drop in the aerial application business,” Odom said.

On the plus side for aerial applicators, the acreage increase will mean added business in the application of growth regulators. “But the net effect is still a big drop in aerial applications,” he said. “And, with reduced chemical sales, business is off at local supply companies.”

“Overall, the cost of growing an acre of cotton, pre-eradication, was about $450 an acre. Now it's something in the neighborhood of $250 an acre.”

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