The Arkansas “boll weevil eradication” class-action lawsuit has been delayed again. Brought by northeast Arkansas cotton producers bucking against imposed eradication assessments, the case should be wrapped up on April 2.

“There's probably a half day of testimony and summation left in the case,” says John Rose, a Mississippi County producer and class member.

The case has been slow to reach conclusion. The first delay occurred last December and was a result of attorneys having to get notice to all potential class members.

“Notices had to be sent out to everyone who had the opportunity to vote in the last referendum,” says Rose. “That took a while.”

The second and third delays were due to a case that ran far longer than expected. Attorneys involved in the eradication suit were also working that case, which took priority.

“This latest delay — although it's more of a continuation — is because our case went on a little longer than anticipated,” says Rose. “The judge has a full docket, and so we'll pick back up in three weeks.”

The class is now made up of approximately 50 plaintiffs. However, some 80 farmers have contributed to the legal fund for the prosecution of the case.

While he hasn't been called to testify in the case, Bill Robertson, Arkansas Extension cotton specialist, says eradication is working. “The eradication program is really doing well, overall,” he says. “Last year, in southwest Arkansas, I believe two weevils were found. In the southeast part of the state, there was a bit of a problem area around Pine Bluff. But that's under control, and when you get away from town to the south, things look really good.

“Look at our yields the last three years — all 800 pounds-plus. I know the weather had a lot to do with that, but eradication is a huge part of our recent success.”

Danny Kiser, who runs the Arkansas eradication program, says he'll be glad when the case is resolved, whatever the outcome. “We need (the northeast) in the program, but we also need to know how we're going to proceed. We're not in the field right now, but we need to finalize plans. It will be a relief to get a final ruling and get on down the road.”

Kiser, who isn't among those named in the suit, was called as a witness. “There weren't any surprises,” he says. “We knew (the class) attorneys would be asking questions on a lot of different areas.”

During testimony, Rose says the Arkansas Plant Board has spent a lot of time “explaining that it took $27 per acre around here to run the eradication program. They only charged us $8. They're holding that up as a bargain for us.

“But it's really not when you look at cost versus benefit — which is the way to make every business decision, whether you're dealing with a farm, a factory or some retail store. Any decision you make must be based on cost versus benefit.

“That said, (in areas of Mississippi County) we spend about $1 per acre controlling boll weevils. We don't have a weevil problem here. It doesn't matter to us if it costs $10,000 per acre and they only charge us $8. If we only spend $1 normally, we still aren't getting a positive benefit.”

The judge is also looking at the difference between an assessment and a tax.

“We contend in the lawsuit that there's been an illegal exaction of a tax and an illegal delegation of taxing authority to the executive branch of the government,” says Rose. “That's unconstitutional. We're waiting to see what the judge decides.”

Rose wants to remind fellow producers about the basis for this lawsuit. “People shouldn't forget that our region had five referendums and all five failed. However, we were forced into eradication anyway — our vote didn't count. A one man, one vote election is the most basic democratic structure we have in this country. We were led to believe — in fact, we were flat-out told — that eradication wouldn't begin in our region until there was a two-thirds approval by grower referendum.

“The truth is, the way this was forced on us, if 100 percent of the growers in Mississippi County had voted against the last referendum, it wouldn't have mattered. Statute-wise, the judge has already ruled that the Plant Board has the right to charge assessments. But there's just something fundamentally unfair about that, it seems. Any reasonable person has to admit to, at the least, feeling conflicted about this being forced on us.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com