The Arkansas Supreme Court ruled unanimously Sept. 22 that farmers in the state can be forced into the boll weevil eradication effort.

The case was brought to the court by some 60 cotton farmers from northeast Arkansas’ Mississippi and east Craighead counties. The group must now decide whether to accept the ruling or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Prior to the lawsuit, farmers in the “Northeast Delta Zone” said their annual boll weevil control costs weren’t close to the Arkansas Plant Board’s proposed assessment of $8 per acre. In explaining the rejection of four eradication referendums, many said they spent less than $2 per acre controlling boll weevils annually.

In 2003, the Plant Board forced the zone’s participation, explaining the investment made by neighboring farmers was threatened by the holdouts. Weevils in the holdout zone, officials said, could migrate to cotton-farming areas already in the program. Plus, spraying “buffer” areas around the northeast zone had become increasingly problematic and expensive.

Once forced into the program, the farmers filed suit against the Plant Board, claiming without a passed referendum the assessment was an illegal tax. Pulaski County Circuit Judge James Moody Jr. disagreed. Under the Boll Weevil Suppression Eradication Act of 1991, Moody said, the Plant Board could impose the program whether a referendum passed or not.

In a unanimous decision authored by Justice Donald L. Corbin, Arkansas’ highest court agreed with Moody: under the 1991 act, the Plant Board has the power to force the program regardless of referendum results.

“The statutes at issue plainly authorize the (Arkansas Plant) Board to take the action it took in this case,” Corbin wrote.

“There is simply nothing on the face of the act itself tending to limit the board’s authority in requiring mandatory participation in an eradication program, including cost-sharing, to such instances in which a program has already been approved by growers in the affected zone. Had the Legislature wished to place such a limitation on the board’s power, it could easily have done so…

“Here, the assessments are only charged to those persons who will directly benefit from the eradication program, namely the cotton growers in the eradication zone.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com