For two Arkansas counties : Another eradication referendum set

The Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation board on Dec. 30 voted unanimously to request the state Plant Board set up another referendum for east Craighead County and Mississippi County. They're hoping the fifth time will be the charm.

The call for a new referendum came just days after votes for the last were tallied. The two counties — the only Arkansas cotton-growing counties not in a boll weevil eradication program — narrowly rejected the last attempt to bring them into the eradication fold.

In the last referendum (votes were counted Dec. 23), some 65 percent of the farmers and landlords voted for the program — just 1.7 percent less than the 66.7 percent needed to pass.

Breaking the numbers down, there were 884 total votes cast (compared to 1,042 cast in the third referendum) with 575 for and 309 against. In Mississippi County, the votes were 68 percent for and 32 percent against. In eastern Craighead County, the votes showed 59 percent for eradication and 41 percent against. Craighead County voters provided the referendum's killing stroke.

Jim Brumley, head of the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (which proposed to heavily subsidize and also run an eradication program in the two counties), says the vote totals weren't surprising. “The vote being this close was right in line with what I was hearing. There was no way to predict which way this would come down. One day I'd hear it was going to pass, the next day there was no way. It had been that way for a few weeks, and I never had any confidence either way.”

With those vote totals, and with similar tactics having been utilized in the Mississippi Delta and other places, questions were raised about a move to place Mississippi County in the program and leave eastern Craighead County the lone holdout.

Prior to the announcement of a fifth referendum, Doug Ladner, director of the Arkansas boll weevil eradication effort, said that “because of the terrain, it would be difficult to draw a line to separate the two counties in a manageable way.”

Brumley says he's never looked at carving Mississippi County away from eastern Craighead County.

“That's possible, but the first thing to consider — and I haven't even peeked at these numbers — is how many acres of cotton are in a 15-mile wide stretch down Mississippi County's west side. The border that butts up against Craighead County has to be looked at closely because we can't trade for a buffer zone that's bigger than the one we've got now. You can't run a cheap program when there are buffer zones to contend with.”

And make no mistake, “there's still trouble with buffer zones up there,” says Daryl Little, director of the Arkansas Plant Board. “Everyone is talking about a quarantine. But my concern isn't so much with the quarantine as it is with natural migration of these pests.”

Eradication has failed in the two counties for a number of reasons. Chief among them: boll weevil control in the area often costs producers less than $1 per acre annually. That amount is far less than the $8 per acre farmers in the counties were asked to pay to rid the area of boll weevils.

“We need this county and a half in the program and the foundation board knows it. There was a motion early in the (Dec. 30) meeting to split the counties up. That didn't pass. But when we voted to let the entire region face another referendum, the board acted as one,” says Little.

What were some of the objections to splitting the two counties?

“You'd still have the problem, but it would just be shifted. The buffer zone troubles and expense would still be there,” says Little.

Little says he has no indication that the fifth referendum will do any better or worse. However, a lower voter turnout the last time around is cited as another reason to give eradication another shot.

“I'm hoping that we'll get more participation this time around. Hopefully, there will be a few more positive votes.”

The new referendum is tentatively set for the last week of January and the first week of February.

The same package presented to farmers last time ($8 per acre annually for seven years) is being recycled. “Everything is the same. The Southeast Foundation is still comfortable with the scenario being offered. But this is it. The federal money won't be there much longer nor will money from the Southeast Foundation.”

Little isn't sure another round of meetings in the two counties would be productive.

“During this last referendum, meetings were held and the people that came to those already had their minds made up for or against. By now, folks know the issues and I'm just hoping — however they vote — that people just come out and cast a ballot this time.”

Editor's note: for additional coverage of this story, please visit e-mail: [email protected].

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