The two boll weevil eradication holdout counties in northeast Arkansas are facing another push to get rid of the pests. The counties — Mississippi and Craighead — grow a lot of cotton and are, essentially, serving as an island of refuge for weevils in the midst of eradication efforts.
Both the Arkansas eradication effort and the Southeast Foundation (which handles all eradication east of the Mississippi River along with Missouri's Bootheel) are spending incredible amounts of money in buffer zones around the two counties. The Southeast Foundation, facing a buffer zone bill of $4.6 million in 2003, has opted to try to use the money in another way.
“Through our legal departments, we're in the process of working up a draft contract between the Southeast Foundation and the Arkansas eradication effort. We're proposing that our foundation will take over and manage the northeast corner of Arkansas, where there are two counties that have yet to vote an eradication plan into being. The Arkansas folks will put financial support into the program for the duration of the seven-year program. When that time is up we'll turn maintenance back over to the Arkansas foundation,” says Jim Brumley, director if the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.
“We made a business decision that we'd be better off taking our buffer zone funds and helping Arkansas pass a referendum in those two counties. That way we'd help fix the situation rather than put a patch on it. Without getting a referendum passed and continuing on this course, all we're doing with a buffer is putting a Band-Aid on a very bad wound.”
If the referendum passes, the Southeast Foundation proposes putting $3 million into northeast Arkansas in year one and the same amount in year two. Arkansas is putting in $2 million the first year and $1.5 million the second.
“All of this is to no avail if the referendum isn't passed. We must get that passed,” says Brumley.
The situation is growing to a crisis stage because, over the last several months, weevil counts have skyrocketed around the holdout area. Watching buffers around the two Arkansas counties requires constant vigilance and spraying.
“There are a lot of late season boll weevils in northeast Arkansas outside the eradication zone. The boll weevil foundation has cited numbers coming from their trap lines and the numbers are shocking. They've got three years of data and the numbers for that area — Mississippi County and part of Craighead County — this year are much greater than from the previous two years,” says Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist.
“There's also trouble with almost all our early cotton. Even where Dropp has been used, it looks like the crop needs a side-dressing. It looks like June cotton. There are big squares in those fields. Weevils love that,” says Robertson.
The problem is there's no time for farmers to take care of their stalks. With regular rains, all farm workers are running pickers, building modules and working to get crops out of fields. There's still rice and soybean harvesting going on in some areas of the state. Shredding cotton stalks is understandably taking a backseat.
“Stalk termination is important. When eradication is brought up, the first thing most folks think about is chemical spraying. But that won't do everything. Cultural practices are just as important. Farmers are in a bad spot. Very few have extra money lying around to deal properly with stalk destruction. Unfortunately, that puts the pressure back on the eradication foundations,” says Robertson.
And there's another factor: minimum-till cotton.
“We're all caught between a rock and a hard place. The eradication effort needs those stalks cut, but the grower has no time. I understand that. But treating these fields is costing us additional funds that weren't projected. The reason is when we started this program, about 20 to 25 percent of the fields were no-till or minimum-till. Now, we have over 90 percent in that category. That means stalks are cut higher, regrowth is more pronounced and it's becoming extremely difficult to manage a budget with additional treatments being necessary,” says Doug Ladner, head of Arkansas boll weevil eradication effort.
Ladner says boll weevil counts around Arkansas' northeast Delta zone have leapt incredibly. He says spraying buffer zones around the two counties costs Arkansas $3.5 million to $3.6 million annually.
“The numbers have jumped over the last couple of months and have blown us out of the water. In Mississippi County, a couple of weeks ago we were catching over 240 weevils per trap. The impact of that is tremendous. Financially, the program is losing money to sprayings that shouldn't be occurring in the first place. It's costing us a lot of money to react to the migration of weevils from these inactive counties to active counties.”
Why is this happening now?
“As these two counties have no eradication program, there has been no spraying there. The weevil numbers are a reflection of that. It's that simple. Luckily, in our active eradication zones, weevil numbers have fallen rapidly over the last several weeks. We're pleased with all areas except those around Mississippi and Craighead counties. South and west of those counties, there are tremendous numbers of weevils that we constantly have to treat,” says Ladner.
The referendum for the two counties will run from Dec. 1 to Dec. 14. The assessments for the referendum are for $8 per year per acre for seven years of eradication. Then, after that, the cost would be up to $3 per year per acre for maintenance, says Daryl Little, director of the Arkansas State Plant Board, which oversees the state's eradication program.
Does Little think the increasing count numbers will sway some producers in the holdout area to vote for the program this time around?
“It's hard to say. These are weevils that are being caught very late. We're not up there saying these weevils are causing damage to the cotton crop. In Mississippi County, they usually have their crop made before the weevils get very bad. But there's no doubt there's a bunch of weevils up there, and we need to get rid of them. We all want the weevils eradicated. Having to watch this area is a drain logistically and financially,” says Little.