Since its arrival from Mexico in 1892, the boll weevil has been responsible for more heartburn within the U.S. farm community than any other insect save the mosquito.
The road to the hoped-for eradication of the pest is paved with the careers of farmers, researchers and bureaucrats who got crossways of the nearly 30-year effort to drive the pest back across the Rio Grande River.
In its latest feat, the boll weevil appears to have succeeded in driving a wedge between farmers and eradication program leaders in an area where the fight against the 114-year-old scourge was thought to be all but won.
The dispute between the Southeastern Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation, Inc., and the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation of Georgia, Inc., has been going on behind closed doors for nearly a year but flared into the open earlier this month when the Southeastern Foundation brought a lawsuit against the Georgia group.
The suit, filed in Federal District Court in Alabama, says the Georgia Foundation should pay $5.48 million, mostly in “buffer zone” funding, that the Southeastern Foundation says it owes to the SEBWEF and its nine member states.
“The Southeastern Foundation member states' cooperation has resulted in one of the most successful pest elimination programs in United States' agricultural history,” said Jim Brumley, executive director of the Southeastern Foundation, in a SEBWEF press release.
But he and other Southeastern Foundation officials said the cooperation between the SEBWEF and Georgia has broken down in recent months.
“After 12 months of attempting to convince the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation of Georgia, Inc., to pay obligations and remain a member in good standing, the Southeastern Foundation has finally had to resort to a federal court lawsuit,” the press release said.
“We've had a number of face-to-face meetings with members of the Georgia Foundation's board, and we met with an independent mediator, Phil Adams of Opelika, Ala.,” said Mitch Henry, an attorney from Montgomery, Ala., who represents the Southeastern Foundation.
“We felt we had made good progress and expected a proposal from the Georgia Foundation. We waited on that for several months, but, when it came, it was not something we could agree to.”
Henry said the $5.48 million is primarily related to buffer zones, areas in which active eradication programs have been started adjacent to areas in which the boll weevil has not been eliminated. Southeastern Foundation members agreed to contribute money to help those areas eradicate the boll weevil to prevent them from reinfesting eradicated areas.
(The Southeastern Foundation is an umbrella group established to coordinate the efforts of the boll weevil eradication foundations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.)
“There are two sides to every story and that is definitely the case in this story,” says Billy Sanders, a cotton producer from Dooly County, Ga., and board member of the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation of Georgia, Inc.
Sanders says the Georgia Foundation has run its own program for the last year because of its disagreement with the Southeastern Foundation. “We think we have one of the best-run programs in the nation — at the cheapest cost to the farmer.”
Georgia was declared boll weevil-free in the mid-1990s. Since then, the state's growers have been paying for a maintenance program, in which boll weevil pheromone traps located around cotton field borders are checked routinely, and for buffer zone costs.
Sanders says leaders on both sides of the issue have made mistakes. “There's enough blame to go around, but we don't believe we should have to pay for some of the mistakes made by the other states.”
Among the grievances cited by Sanders: the operation of the boll weevil eradication program in southeast Missouri. Sanders claims the mismanagement of that program has cost Missouri farmers and the Southeastern Foundation “a lot of money.”
Part of the problem in the Bootheel has been the migration of weevils from northeast Arkansas, where the start-up of the eradication effort was delayed due to another lawsuit. But Sanders contends the program in Missouri has also suffered from poor recordkeeping and lack of oversight from the Southeastern Foundation
“The officials with the Southeastern Foundation have a fiduciary responsibility for monitoring the program, and they did not fulfill that responsibility,” he says.
Henry denies that claim, saying Southeastern Foundation leaders believe the eradication programs in the Missouri Bootheel and Arkansas have worked well, despite the delays in starting the program in portions of Craighead and Mississippi County, which lie across the state line from Missouri. (The Arkansas eradication program is not a member of the Southeastern Foundation.)
“The programs in Missouri and west Tennessee have had to deal with unusual numbers of boll weevils migrating across the state line and the Mississippi River,” he said. “But we believe the programs in those states have dealt with those problems reasonably well under the circumstances.
“We believe the Missouri program is as solid as a rock,” said Charles Parker, a cotton producer from Kennett and chairman of the Missouri eradication program. “We are financially sound, and we are eradicating the boll weevil. We have a new director, Jaye Massey, who came from the Arkansas program, and he is doing a good job.”
Parker says the Missouri program hasn't cost the Southeastern Foundation any money. “We're paying our own way,” he said. “We just recently received the first of the buffer zone money. We all agreed to let the Foundation money go to Arkansas because their weevils were coming into Missouri and Tennessee.”
Sanders says Georgia farmers also have been concerned about the operation of the boll weevil eradication program in Mississippi, according to Sanders. The Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corp. oversees the Mississippi program and is a member of the Southeastern Foundation.)
“When they (MBWMC leaders) came to talk to us about joining the Southeastern Foundation, they told us they would pay for it themselves,” said Sanders. “But they soon forgot about that.”
Because of the high start-up costs for the program in the hill region of Mississippi, the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corp. borrowed money from USDA's Farmers Service Administration that has since been repaid with farmer assessments. The Southeastern Foundation also provided funding since Mississippi was helping provide a “buffer zone” to prevent boll weevils from migrating back into Alabama, Georgia and middle Tennessee.
Sanders says Georgia farmers have been reluctant to “go along with helping farmers” outside the Southeastern Foundation program like those in Arkansas.
“We think everyone ought to pay for their own program outside of what help the federal government provides,” he said, adding “we do think Arkansas is doing a better job of running their program now.”
Henry says he still thinks the Southeastern Foundation and the Georgia Foundation can find a way to resolve their issues. “We felt we had made good progress in our discussions with some of the Georgia board members,” he said.
“When they came back with their proposal, however, they wanted the Georgia Foundation to have veto authority over anything the Southeastern Foundation wanted to do, and that was unacceptable.”
Some Southeastern Foundation board members are just as upset with the Georgia Foundation's position as the Georgia Foundation is with the Southeastern's, according to Henry. Among those is Marshall Grant, a cotton farmer and one of the leaders of the inaugural boll weevil eradication program in North Carolina.
“Marshall is sort of our equivalent of Mr. Sanders in his passion for our position,” says Henry. “Marshall says he can remember when North Carolina and Virginia (the first two states to mount boll weevil eradication programs) were having to help Georgia.
“The Georgia Foundation leaders have stated they don't want to pay any expenses related to a buffer zone, but that places an unfair burden on the other states. But we're still willing to meet with the Georgia Foundation to find a way to work this out.”
Sanders, meanwhile, says he doesn't like the trend he sees of the Southeastern Foundation moving toward becoming a permanent organization.
“I think we should be working toward closing the doors of the Southeastern Foundation,” he noted. “I think it should be phased out and the coordination of the boll weevil eradication effort put in an office at the National Cotton Council or with USDA.”
Henry says the Southeastern Foundation hopes Georgia producers will encourage their foundation “not to abandon the cotton producers in Tennessee, Missouri and other Southeastern states.
“The Southeastern board members pledged long ago to fight the boll weevil together,” he said. “We believe we should finish the job together.”