Everyone agrees that eradicating the boll weevil is a good idea. But over the last few years, farmers in Arkansas' Mississippi and eastern Craighead counties have rejected five referendums to join an eradication program. In March, the Arkansas State Plant Board said the time for referendums had run out. Citing a 1917 law and the need to protect cotton crops outside the holdout counties, the board forced the opposition (and 300,000 cotton acres) into the eradication program.
With the move, the board announced an assessment — bills will be mailed Aug. 15 — of $8 per acre. While that seems low to Arkansas farmers paying $35 per acre, the $8 assessment exceeds control costs in much of the two counties. Holdout farmers often cite annual weevil control costs of less than $1 per acre.
With such rancor in play, it surprised few people when it was reported that six farmers had filed suit against the Plant Board. In the suit, the farmers claim the Plant Board's decision to force the program on them amounts to unfair taxation.
In view of this, the plaintiffs have asked the Circuit Court of Pulaski County to collect and hold their assessments. That way they won't be fined for late payment, and the money can be quickly refunded if they prevail in court.
“I'm aware of it, but haven't been served with the suit yet,” says Daryl Little, director of the Plant Board. “I'd prefer to wait until we have a chance to have a look at it and visit with the attorney general's office before commenting. But no, (the lawsuit being filed) didn't shock me.”
Danny Kiser, who directs the state eradication effort, says the suit shouldn't, “at least in the short run, have an effect on our operations. Unless we get other directions, we're going to go ahead and spray. We've already begun mist-blowing in the hotter weevil areas in the forced zone. Our goal was to do up to 40 percent of the acreage this week. Because of some rain, I'm not sure we'll meet that goal.”
Kiser said aerial application would begin the week of Aug. 11-17 in the Northeast Ridge Zone (the proper name of the holdout area). That should cover about 60,000 acres.
“By Aug. 18, we'll be in full swing with the program. Initiating this spraying will pay big dividends in our program as well as those in Tennessee and Missouri.”
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A Plaintiff Speaks
JOHN ROSE, a cotton farmer from Blytheville, Ark., is one of six plaintiffs who have filed suit against the Arkansas State Plant Board. Rose says he's behind eradication efforts in general. What he isn't for is being forced into a program in lieu of a passed referendum.
On how long the lawsuit has been in the works:
“We got in contact with an attorney as soon as we got word that the Plant Board was considering adopting a forced program in this zone. We began discussing options with the attorney (Allan Gates of Little Rock) at that time and hired him in early May, I believe.”
On how much he spends controlling weevils:
“I've been farming here since 1974. I went back to my records and checked from 1979 to 2000 and found that I'd spent an average of 97 cents per acre on boll weevil control annually — and that's been calculated in 2003 dollars.”
On how he views eradication overall:
“I don't deny that other farmers need us in an eradication program. It could put their investment in jeopardy if our land isn't eradicated too. But the point is: it's their investment. They made it, but we don't need it. We'd be willing to accept eradication, but not at the prices cited in the past. It would have to be considerably less. The investment made in the areas around us is considerable. Still, though, it's an investment like someone buying IBM or Wal-Mart stocks. What's happened is they've run into an area where eradication isn't needed. But they still want to force us to pay to protect their investment. That's what we're fighting. That isn't the way things need to be done.”
On the lawsuit:
“We're saying the Arkansas State Plant Board doesn't have the statutory authority to collect any funds from us without a passed referendum. Whether they can legally carry out eradication operations in our zone, I don't know. Right now, we're challenging the idea that they have authority to collect any taxes from us without the passage of a referendum. We're asking the judge allow us to pay our taxes into the registry of the court. That way the money would be protected. In the event the suit is settled in our favor, the money would be there for us to get back. If we paid the money to the Plant Board and they, in turn, delivered the funds to the eradication foundation, it would be gone. Our chances of getting a refund in that case would be slim — there would be no money to get back.”