John King, 54, remembers when the infamous boll weevil wreaked havoc on the Brownsville cotton farm where he lives and works with his father, Allen King.
“We had to spray them every five days to break the cycle. You’d have to spray from the Fourth of July to Labor Day,” he recalls. “They were very destructive – there would be three or four boll weevils in every cotton bloom, and they knocked off the fruit.”
Fortunately, Tennessee’s cotton farmers today don’t have to deal with boll weevils destroying their crop, and young cotton producers have likely never seen them in their fields. The insect was contained in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to the National Boll Weevil Eradication Program launched by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in 1978.
“It has been the most successful program we’ve ever had,” says Allen King, a longtime cotton producer who served as chairman of the Tennessee Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation for decades.
History of the Boll Weevil in Tennessee
Since it migrated to the United States from Mexico in 1892, the boll weevil has cost U.S. cotton producers more than $22 billion in yield losses and control costs. It is the single most destructive cotton pest in history.
“The boll weevil was first detected in the U.S. in 1892 in South Texas, where it migrated across the Rio Grande River from Mexico near Brownsville,” says Boyd Barker, program administrator of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture. “Within 22 years, natural migration of the boll weevil had reached Tennessee. The first appearance in Tennessee was in Shelby County in 1914.”
The first full-scale eradication trial began in 1978 in Virginia and North Carolina. The program expanded to the Southeastern states in the 1980s and reached Tennessee in 1994. The cost was shared by federal and state governments, and the growers themselves.
“The Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP) has been a tremendous asset to cotton producers,” John King says. “It was hard to convince people to spend the money to do it because it cost farmers approximately $28 per acre, but it worked. Young farmers don’t realize the financial sacrifice older farmers had to make.”
Today, the boll weevil is considered eradicated in all cotton-growing states except Texas.
“The only place in the U.S. where boll weevils still exist is in extreme South Texas in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which is continually inundated with natural migration from Mexico,” Barker says. “The rest of Texas has been eradicated for several years.”
In Tennessee, the boll weevil was considered eradicated in 2009 for the first time since 1914. However, the eradication program is still in operation because of the insect’s tendency to pop up occasionally around the southeast.
“They can travel long distances because they hitchhike on equipment or vehicles,” John King says. “If they manage to hitchhike out of Mexico or Texas, other areas can get reinfested, and those spots have to be retreated. If we were to stop the program, we would have boll weevils in our cotton again within five or six years.”
That’s a history Tennessee cotton producers certainly do not want to repeat.
“For more than eight decades, the boll weevil was the bane of cotton producers all across Tennessee,” Barker says. “The boll weevil is unique in that its reproductive cycle depends on cotton, which serves as a host plant. The female boll weevil bores holes in the developing cotton boll, then lays her eggs in the cotton boll. The eggs hatch, and the larval stage of the boll weevil feeds within the cotton boll, causing the main damage and yield loss until it matures into an adult boll weevil.”
The Effects of Boll Weevil Eradication
The Tennessee Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation contracted with the Southeastern Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation to operate the program in the Volunteer State. Eradication involved spraying all cotton fields on intervals of increasing length as the season progressed and as the insect’s reproductive biology dictated.
While critics of the program have expressed concern about the environmental impact of spraying pesticides, cotton growers agree that getting rid of the boll weevil has actually had a positive impact on the environment. Once the weevil is eradicated from an area, farmers are able to reduce cotton insecticide use by 40 to 90 percent.
The program has had a tremendously positive impact on Tennessee’s cotton production, too. Many growers, including Willie German of Somerville, say it saved the cotton industry.
“Without boll weevil eradication, we would not be in the cotton business today,” says German, who started farming in 1977. Along with his three sons, he planted 2,500 acres of cotton in 2018.
“We went from producing 600 pounds of cotton per acre to 800 pounds or more,” German says.
Barker says cotton growers in Tennessee have been able to increase their yield by 20 to 40 percent thanks to boll weevil eradication.
“It has been conclusively shown that the BWEP has resulted in a substantial reduction in cotton insecticide use and a substantial increase in cotton yields – a win- win scenario for cotton growers, with environmental benefits for all citizens across the cotton-growing areas of Tennessee,” Barker says. “No wonder the BWEP has been called one of the most successful private-public partnerships in the history of our country.”
Every 10 years, a new referendum has to pass by a two-thirds majority among cotton growers to continue the BWEP. The referendum will need to be passed again in 2019.
“We have to pass this referendum in 2019,” German says. “Tennessee farmers only pay $1.50 per acre for monitoring of the boll weevil and to help fund a buffer zone in South Texas. If we don’t continue this war on the boll weevil, we all know it could and would migrate back to Tennessee just like it did from 1892 to 1914.”