Pest removal program up for renewal

By Jack Elliott Jr.

The Associated Press

JACKSON - Prior to 1993, Mississippi cotton farmers fought the boll weevil by their own rules.

The 1993 Legislature set up the mechanics of a five-year boll weevil eradication program. There was an election to enter the eradication program. Once farmers in a district approved it, everybody participated. The program was funded by an assessment, also called a checkoff, on each acre of cotton.

The goal was to eradicate boll weevils from Mississippi cotton fields, ideally by 2003. Cotton producers planted 1.36 million acres in 2000.

The program was renewed in 1996 and is again up for renewal.

Cotton growers have paid between $20 and $24 per acre annually for boll weevil traps and sprays to eliminate cotton's No. 1 pest from the state. Other funds have come from cotton warehouse taxes and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corporation has asked the Legislature for a 10-year program rather than five years.

A key reason is to pay off debt of more than $50 million, said Kenneth Hood, chairman of the corporation's board. Under a 10-year program, he said farmers assessment would not exceed $12 an acre. Otherwise, Hood said, repaying the debt could exceed $30 an acre.

Lawmakers seem amenable.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Joe Stogner, R-Sandy Hook, said the program would expire this year without legislative action.

"I see no problem with going beyond the five years," Stogner said last week after a meeting at the Capitol on the bill.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, agrees.

"The program has got to be paid for one way or another," Holland said. "If it's not paid for through the checkoff, it ultimately becomes a lieu on the property holder. I think we'll probably pass the bill. There seems to be growing strength for that."

The boll weevil swarmed across the border from Mexico in the early 1900s and quickly spread throughout the Southeast.

Virtually impossible to control with the technology and pesticides available at the time, the bugs forced "King Cotton" to abdicate. Southern farmers switched to other crops, such as soybeans.

Eradication programs chased the boll weevil from Virginia west through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and across the river into Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas, where similar management programs are in place.

Hood said the boll weevil is not wholly eradicated in Mississippi but may soon be. He said the need then will be for a maintenance program.

Legislative action aside, Hood said farmers must still vote region by region to remain in the program.

"This is do or die for us," said corporation president Johnny Swazye of Yazoo County. "If we don't get the 10-year extension, this program is dead. We have come too far to let that happen."

Hood said the program was designed to do the best it can for all the cotton producers. He said some mistakes probably were made but those were dealt with.

Joe Huerkamp, a Noxubee County cotton grower, said not all farmers in his area are pleased with the program. He said he could not predict what might happen on a vote for a 10-year extension.

"I, myself, am on the fence right now," Huerkamp said. "There are farmers like me who don't like how the program has been run. I think they (farmers) will vote for it because the alternative is no program at all."

Holland said it may be that the Legislature did not require enough accountability from the program over the years.

"The bottom line is that the boll weevil has been basically eradicated and that's what we started the program for," Holland said.

The bills are Senate Bill 2730 and House Bill 1148.

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