Keeping watch on weevils

HALLS, Tenn. -- The sons have heard the unpleasant stories their fathers tell, and they don’t believe they’ll ever let their guard down.

But experience is bestowed on future generations in ever-fading memories. So cotton producer Eugene Pugh Jr. thinks hard to recall a moment that typified the worst of times, when he fought boll weevils tooth and nail. Maybe the image will last a little longer this way.

“When we had a severe infestation, we’d spray two times a week religiously. I remember sitting on the sprayer and turning around on the end, and the chemical getting all over me because the driver’s seat was open. We were spraying toxiphene, DDT and methyl parathion back then. When you went home at night, it felt like you were covered in molasses.

“And it seemed like we never did get anywhere. We would kill them, but I don’t know that we ever did enough good, especially up in these woods. We would spray until we got tired and quit.”

The story has left an impression on Eugene’s son, Eugene Pugh III and his nephew, Steve Pugh Jr., sons of the two brothers who run the 4,500-acre west Tennessee cotton operation.

Things are different today for the young cotton farmers, both married, in their 20s and representing the fifth generation of Pughs to make a living from this land. They ride in air-conditioned cabs with filtering systems that take out chemical residues. The harshest chemicals have been banned. Bt cotton has taken out the worm pests. The Boll Weevil Eradication Program has made the weevil a vanishing memory in Halls, Tenn., and in thousands of other small rural towns across the Cotton Belt.

Their job isn’t necessarily easier. In fact, it’s much more intensive. They worry about managing the size of the plant, variably applying plant growth regulators and fertilizer to cut costs, and spraying for their No. 1 nemesis in cotton fields today, the once-lowly plant bug.

They are old enough to recall some of the later battles with weevils. “I remember when we were spraying twice a week here and in the bottoms with the old chemicals,” said Eugene III, who graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from Mississippi State University.

But their memories of the boll weevil are fading, while their fathers’ are still rooted in worry. Eugene, Jr., and Steve, Sr., were desperate by the time the boll weevil eradication program came calling.

“If we didn’t have the eradication program, I’d hate to think how few acres of cotton we would have had,” Eugene, Jr., said. “This has always been a cotton-oriented community. But there was a time back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I had the only cotton on 88 Hwy, between Halls and the Mississippi River.

Eugene, Jr. had seen the benefits of the boll weevil eradication program first hand when he participated in a Producer Information Exchange tour, (sponsored by FMC Corp. and the National Cotton Council). “There were farmers from the Carolinas and Georgia who hadn’t seen a boll weevil in five years. That told me that it could work. They had the same type of farming areas that we had, hills and bottoms.”

The elder Pughs were solidly behind the eradication effort when it began in west Tennessee in 2000, but there was a lot of opposition from fellow farmers. “It just barely passed, and we had some mismanagement here in the first few years, but today, any farmer who is raising cotton will say the same thing about this boll weevil eradication program,” Eugene, Jr., said.

Like talking about significantly higher yields and lower chemical control costs since eradication moved to mop-up stages the last couple of years. “Our yields have gone from 1.5 bales on average to over 1,000 pounds with good weather,” Eugene, Jr., said. “Last year was an extremely good year and we averaged 1,200 pounds.”

The extra yield is coming from a bigger top crop due to less damage from weevils and worm pests (thanks to Bt cotton). “ I’ve really noticed that in the top 2-3 nodes of these cotton plants,” Eugene Jr., said. “We never used to get anything there. Now there are 10-15 bolls in the top of the plant, and if we time our defoliation right, we harvest them. The eradication program has meant a lot to the economy of west Tennessee.”

Eugene, III, and Steve, Jr., aren’t so young as to not see a difference, either. “The bolls on the top are bigger. Before boll weevil eradication, they’d be knotty. You would see where the boll weevil penetrated a boll, one lock would be half open. Now it’s a big clump of open bolls,” Eugene, III said.

The younger Pughs are able to do something their fathers rarely had time for when they were their age — manage the growth of the plant and allow beneficial insects to play more of a role in insect control.

Indeed a more thoughtful approach has replaced the weekly all-out assaults that killed weevils and just about any other pest that moved. Now some of those pests, stink bugs and plant bugs, are starting to emerge as primary pests.

“We’re actually having to think about those insects a lot more,” said Bill Beegle, the Pughs crop consultant since 1987. “Before eradication, if you found 10-20 percent weevil punctures, you knew right away what you were going to do. You didn’t even bother to look for plant bugs or stink bugs because you were about to knock those out anyway.”

The younger Pughs point out that they have the products to deal with the new pests. Eugene, III, noted, “We can spray for plant bugs and not kill our beneficials. The beneficials can help with the plant bugs.”

The Pughs still see a boll weevil every now and then, but by the end of the decade, when all active eradication programs in the United States are expected to be complete, sightings should be rare — as long as grower resolve doesn’t weaken.

According to Frank Carter, senior scientist, pest management, National Cotton Council, complacency is a big challenge for future generations of cotton producers. “We have some sub-committees of the Boll Weevil Action Committee that are looking at plans on handling post-eradication, what safeguards we need, a budget and what supplies we need to keep on hand and making sure we have suppliers around. We have to finish the job and protect our investment.”

Beegle agrees. “Even older farmers may get to thinking that since they haven’t seen a boll weevil in 10 years or so, there won’t be a reason to keep monitoring. I hope we don’t start spreading that idea around. Some people don’t realize how fast weevils can rebound on us and come back to being a problem.

“We need an infrastucture in place so that if we do have to start spraying again in hot spots, we are able to do it,” Beegle said. “It will require some more money. We also have to remember that a lot of the money that west Tennessee is going to be paying for the next few years is paying back loans on money we’ve spent already. We have to pay that money back.”

The Pugh family, which started farming cotton in west Tennessee shortly after the Civil War, is confident they can pass the respect they have for the weevil down to their children and grandchildren.

“They’ve heard us talk about it, but they’ve never seen an infestation where you walk out to the field and every bloom has four or five weevils in it,” Eugene Jr. said. “But I think we’ve passed down enough information about the weevil that they’ll be conscious of it. You always want to keep it in the back of your mind.”

The younger Pughs get the idea. “Without the weevil, we can manage the cotton like we want to, which helps us make these yields we’re making,” Eugene III said.

The younger Pughs have implemented a high-tech, variable-rate spraying program for fertilizer and plant growth regulator with AgFleet, available through Jimmy Sanders. “We probably would not be able to concentrate as much on our variable-rate spraying if we had the boll weevil to worry about,” Eugene III said.

And in 20 or more years, when the next generation of Pughs take over and start to question the feasibility of fees to protect fields against weevil re-infestation?

“I’ll tell them to go talk to their granddad,” said Steve Jr., a graduate of Dyersburg State. “He’ll tell them the scary stories.”

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