Boll weevil photo
A boll weevil-free growing environment has saved millions of dollars for cotton growers across the Cotton Belt as a result of a years-long program to eradicate the pest.

Arkansas weevil eradication force ramps up with expected cotton acre rise

Rebate headed to 2017 growers mailbox

Did you grow cotton in Arkansas last year? If so, a rebate is headed your way.

The reason has to do with boll weevils — or, more precisely, the eradication program (http://www.aad.arkansas.gov/boll-weevil-eradication-program) to keep them out of the state.

“At the end of last year, by the time we got through (with the eradication effort), the cost averaged out to about $2 per acre,” says Regina Coleman, Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation executive director. “The assessment is $3 per acre and we keep a two-year operating reserve. It turned out we ended up with a surplus and that will now be given back to the growers in the form of a rebate.”

And it’s going to be an actual rebate, not a credit.

“It will be a 75-cent per acre rebate to growers who had cotton (in 2017). Those funds should be going to the growers in the next several weeks.”

Coleman, understandably, is very happy. “This is good news! Agriculture has taken a hit so many ways through the years. This whole program is for the growers and their benefit and it’ll be so nice to send those checks out.”

Acres rising

Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, expects north of 500,000 acres of cotton to be planted in the state this year. A big concern is growers coming to the crop for the first time.

“We need to remember we’re still in a boll weevil eradication program,” says Robertson. “Even though we haven’t caught a weevil in a long time, it’s still in force.

“The eradication program is paid for by Arkansas cotton producers. Mapping, establishing traps, and monitoring traps can be very costly. … The goal of the program is to implement an effective and economical program to ensure the sustainability of the Arkansas cotton industry.

“The eradication folks are working very hard right now. Think about it: there are a lot of new farmers coming into cotton. Some of them have never grown an acre before, and they may not understand how important it is to let the eradication monitors know where the cotton will be planted. That info needs to get on the monitors’ radar screens as quickly as possible.”

Coleman agrees. “The program has obviously been successful at eradicating the boll weevil. That’s due to a lot of hard work and diligence of a lot of people through the years. We had some folks early on say, ‘there’s no way we’re getting rid of the boll weevil.’ But we did through a consistent approach on spraying, being steady. A lot of money went into eradication, and because of that and the benefits growers receive from being weevil-free so, anyone growing cotton needs to report it.”

To maintain a weevil-free state, “we need everyone to participate. There are rules and regulations in place and the Arkansas State Plant Board is in charge of making sure those are followed. Basically, if you grow cotton in Arkansas you must report it to the Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. The acres must be reported by June 15. If you don’t report your acres, there is a $3 per acre penalty.”

Ramping up

Last year, Arkansas had 424,351 acres of cotton — up from 365,000 acres, says Coleman. “This year, we’re anticipating being over 500,000 acres. From all indications from the information I’ve gathered, that’s what we’re going to budget for.

“Last year, with the jump in acres, the field staff did an extremely good job. I can’t say enough about how good a job they did. We had a few changes in staffing we had to do. But we still only had four field staff and hired several seasonal workers. Everyone jumped in and took care of it and got the job done — covered everything, saw all the growers, took care of the trappings in an efficient manner.”

This year, with acres going up again, “we’ve added another full-time field staffer, and we’ll have three part-time seasonal workers. We’re still operating on a skeletal-type crew even though the acres are rising. But with the people we have on staff and the technology we use, the job can be done properly.”

Again, growers must have everything reported by June 15, and Coleman is “very anxious to see where we end up at.”

Southwest

One interesting development is an expected increase in cotton acres in southwest Arkansas.

“It’s kind of surprising how cotton is going back into the southwest,” says Coleman. “Our Southwest Zone is a four-county area around Texarkana. In 2006, I believe, they had almost 11,000 acres. Then, there was a big decline and there were no acres, gins closed. There was a small plot of cotton at one of the rest areas. So, we monitored that along with the trapping line we always work because Texas still has an active eradication program.”

Then, in 2016, 200 acres of cotton were planted.

“Last year, we had 1,800 acres with more intended but the weather didn’t cooperate. This year, after visiting with growers in the area, it looks like we might be back up to 10,000 acres.”

What kind of pressure does that put on the eradication force?

“The trapping line would have been worked regardless, so that’s normal. Now, trying to locate the growers and potential growers is a worry. Are these people who are coming back into cotton so they know to report? Or, are there brand-new cotton growers who don’t know to report?”

FSA offices have always been very helpful in providing Coleman and colleagues with information and “also to let growers know if they’re planning to plant cotton they need to let the eradication team know.”

Ornamental

One point of emphasis form both Coleman and Robertson: ornamental cotton.

“Cotton is a beautiful plant — personally, I love to look at it,” says Coleman. “But it belongs in a cotton field. When someone plants cotton as an ornamental in their garden or yard and we don’t know about it, there’s a potential for a weevil population to get going.”

There are a lot of people “who want to grow cotton in their gardens,” says Robertson. “They like it as an ornamental. But there are plant board regulations against doing that.

“Driving through the country, I’ve seen people growing big, long rows of cotton in their front yards. The bolls were open and plants were loaded. So, that really complicates things for the boll weevil eradication effort. There’s all this ornamental cotton that the folks monitoring for weevils don’t have on their maps and they don’t know about.

“Can you imagine if weevils came back in because of private gardens? It’s just not a good idea to put cotton in your flowerbeds. That could cost millions of dollars to clean up if an outbreak were to occur, and it’s not worth taking the chance.”

Even though the eradication foundation strongly discourages ornamental planting, “we’re always happy to work with schools, museums and parks that are growing non-commercial cotton for education programs,” says Coleman. “In fact, we’re working with several this year. Someone who wants to grow non-commercial must call (the Foundation) or the Plant Board. There’s an application process they have to go through.

“We had a program we worked with last year around Conway (in central Arkansas). They were growing pumpkins along with the cotton. So, when schools came in to visit the pumpkin patch, they were given a lesson on cotton. Conway is way outside the normal cotton-growing areas of the state, obviously. But when you can educate the public on agriculture in a positive way, we’re definitely excited to help.”

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