An eradication program has been a long time coming for eastern Craighead County and Mississippi County in northeast Arkansas. A string of referendums (the latest last winter) failed to bring the counties into the fold.

After the last referendum was turned aside, the Arkansas State Plant Board cited a 1917 law giving it the authority to declare weevils a nuisance and to force the holdouts into an eradication program.

“We’ve set up offices in Leachville and Osceola,” says Danny Kiser, head of Arkansas’ eradication effort. “Supervisors and other employees have been hired. Mapping of fields is being done, and we’re putting traps on fields as we map. So the set-up for a program is moving along.”

The nature of the situation is that no one will be happy, says Daryl Little, head of the Arkansas State Plant Board.

“The opposition don’t want the program – or want it for less than the $8 per acre assessment – and they’re mad because the Plant Board mandated eradication,” says Little. “Then, there are producers outside the area that are mad because farmers inside the two counties are only paying $8.

“And when talk shifts to even lower assessments for Craighead and Mississippi counties, they get really mad.”

Prior to a public hearing on the matter, many producers (some paying a per acre assessment of over $30) wrote into the Plant Board expressing opinions on the proposed mandated action. The letters are indicative of how contentious the issue is.

“We got a stack of responses at least 3 inches high,” says Little. “About a third of those letters are from farmers inside the two counties who are opposed to any program. The other two-thirds are from producers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri that support the program but are upset because the two counties got away so cheap.

“It’s a situation where if anyone was totally happy, there’s probably something wrong. The truth is, there’s no good solution that everyone is totally happy with.”

Kiser says he’s had some requests from farmers in the two counties not to come onto their property. “At this time, we’re honoring those requests. Once we get set up, we’ll try and meet with growers to iron out some issues and work through anything that comes up. We want to do the best job possible in cooperation with every farmer. Overall, the farmers in the two counties have been very cooperative.”

Many producers in the two counties are “pretty stand-offish” about an eradication program, says Randy Veach, a farmer in the holdout area and a Plant Board member. “This is difficult for farmers here to accept. It wasn’t something we planned on when we set out at the beginning of this year. Now, I think producers know it’s going to happen but that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to accept.”

Over the last several months, Veach has worked to get the $8 assessment cut in half. Towards that end, he got the Arkansas congressional delegation and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to sign on to a request to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees boll weevil eradication nationally.

“The request was to get some additional funding so we could run a referendum that would pass in this area. We know that a $4 assessment will pass. I was trying to get enough federal funds to make that possible. We got an official letter about a week ago saying the money wasn’t available. We haven’t given up, but that was a set back.”

Veach, who farms 4,000 acres of cotton in Manila in Mississippi County, says he understands the points of farmers who are upset at his efforts. But he points to the fact that in the two counties weevil control costs are a pittance compared to those outside. Over the last 20 years, many farmers in the area have averaged $1 or $2 per acre annually for weevil control.

“What I’m trying to accomplish is for us to have a referendum that this area can come under the same rules and in the same manner as the rest of the cotton-growing areas of this nation,” he said. “Instead, we’ll be in a forced program and that isn’t desirable for a number of reasons. The only thing that will pass is a $4 referendum. That’s what I’ve got to work with so that’s what I’m doing.”

Statewide, eradication is going great, says Kiser. Arkansas is experiencing very low numbers compared to last year at this time.

“We’ve got a big reduction in populations – numbers are anywhere from 94 percent to 98 percent reduced for the same time period in 2002. That’s exciting,” says Kiser.

Numbers aren’t down everywhere, though. “Along the border of Mississippi County and up the St. Francis River populations show reductions haven’t occurred,” says Kiser. “The majority of that lack of reduction is due to migrations from the holdout counties.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com