“Our staff is very dedicated to eradicating the boll weevil and serving the Arkansas cotton growers,” says Kiser, who directs the Arkansas eradication program. “These kinds of results make all the hard work worthwhile.”

Kiser says the Southeast Zone ( Pulaski, Lonoke, Jefferson, Arkansas, Lincoln, part of Desha, Drew, Chicot and part of Ashley counties) and Central Zone (Independence, Jackson, Woodruff, Cross, Crittenden, St. Francis, Prairie, Monroe, Lee Phillips, and part of Desha counties), have seen weevil numbers reduced 99.97 percent since the program’s inception. Comparing this season’s boll weevil trap captures with those a year ago shows a 98-percent reduction.

“We are blessed,” says Kiser, “this reduction rate is far above our expectations and will have a positive effect on program cost.”

Arkansas’ effort is part of a nationwide move to eliminate the No. 1 agricultural pest in the country. In a devastating raid from Mexico, boll weevils swept across southern states from 1892 to 1922. In parts of Arkansas, the pest’s arrival meant giving up cotton for other crops or quitting farming entirely. With the weevil’s eviction, some of these “lost” areas could soon produce cotton again.

Growers in the Southwest Zone, where eradication appears complete, experienced record crops last year – both in quantity and quality – despite heavy rains early in the summer.

“I’ve had some of the best yields and fruit set ever,” says Andrew Whisenhunt, who grows cotton on 700 acres in the southwest zone near Bradley. “I’ve been growing cotton for 50 years, and I’ve got the best crop I’ve ever had. We’re just delighted with the program. I had one field last year that yielded four bales per acre.”

Whisenhunt’s costs for insect treatment have dwindled to almost nothing.

“We haven’t put out a hard treatment for any insect,” he says. “ It’s also built up our beneficial insects because we haven’t had to put out hard pesticides.”

Less spraying for insects is another benefit of eradication. “It is a great win for the environment,” says Kiser. “Eradication means a reduction in use of insecticides in cotton fields by as much as 60 percent to 70 percent for all cotton insect pests.”

The Arkansas program works between 1 million and 1.1 million acres of cotton in five zones across the state. Having been mandated into the program this year, officials hope the Northeast Delta Zone (Mississippi and eastern Craighead counties) will begin seeing dramatic results by next spring.

The Northeast Ridge Zone (Clay, Greene, Poinsett, and part of Craighead counties) finished the first full season of eradication treatments in 2002 and now shows a 50 percent reduction in weevil population. However, the zone continues to show elevated weevil counts along the St. Francis River and where Crowley’s Ridge is within 5 to 7 miles.

The reason for the elevation: migration of weevils from the neighboring (and until recently, non-eradication) Northeast Delta Zone. Now that the Northeast Delta Zone is in the program, boll weevil population levels in the Northeast Ridge Zone are expected to drop significantly, according to eradication officials.

The eradication program is funded through a mix of cotton grower and landowner assessments based on a per-acre fee established through grower referenda or set by the Arkansas State Plant Board along with federal and state grants. Thus far, Arkansas cotton growers have invested approximately $104 million in the eradication program.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com