The fifth boll weevil eradication referendum in Arkansas' eastern Craighead and Mississippi counties has failed to pass. And this time it wasn't even close.

After this vote, one thing is evident: more than 34 percent of eligible voters in Arkansas' eastern Craighead and Mississippi counties aren't interested in ridding themselves of the pest. At least not while using any plan offered to them so far.

The latest proposal called for growers to pay $8 per acre for seven years for eradication. However, many farmers in the two counties spend less than $1 per acre annually to control boll weevils.

After the fourth referendum last November, voters' reticence “seems to have been cut in stone,” says Jim Brumley. And with the latest vote tally, eradication opposition has etched that position even deeper.

Brumley, who heads the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (which offered a large financial package and desire to run eradication in the counties), says the latest counts “were surprising, to say the least.” Tallied in Manila, Ark., on Feb. 13, here's what the numbers show:

  • Eastern Craighead County: 236 for eradication, 174 against.
  • Mississippi County: 468 for eradication, 427 against.
  • Both counties: 704 for eradication, 601 against (or 54 percent for eradication and 46 percent against).

As a point of reference, the fourth referendum count was much closer. In fact, a few more “aye” votes and the program would have passed. In the last referendum, some 65 percent of the farmers and landlords voted for the program.

Breaking the numbers down, there were 884 total votes cast (compared to 1,042 cast in the third referendum) with 575 for and 309 against.

In Mississippi County, the votes were 68 percent for and 32 percent against. In eastern Craighead County, the votes showed 59 percent for eradication and 41 percent against.

“Look, this is very disappointing and I'm not sure what we're going to do,” says Danny Kiser, executive director of the Arkansas eradication effort. “The state Plant Board will have to make some decisions soon. I have no indication what direction they will go. There's no doubt it'll be addressed, though.”

Brumley hasn't been to the two counties since the last referendum. “I had to go by what Arkansas folks were calling and telling me. But everyone was optimistic the votes would be there. That caused me to be optimistic. Last time, I had no idea how it would go. But this time, from what I was being told, I felt pretty good.”

Growers opposed to the referendum say they aren't surprised at the totals.

“What was surprising was the drop in support for eradication — the numbers don't lie. Unless something drastic happens, I don't think there will ever be 67 percent of folks around here that go for this.

“I know farmers already in the eradication program aren't happy with us. I have a cousin in Poinsett County who is paying around $25 per acre for eradication. He says he wants us punished or he wants out of the eradication program himself,” says a grower in Craighead County.

The opposition expects fallout. “There's no doubt about that. There are rumors going around that a statewide vote is a possibility. There's also the possibility that the state will declare us a nuisance area and force us into something. There's also the quarantine threat,” says a Mississippi County grower.

Could anything have been done differently to get the referendum passed? Opposition growers who spoke with Delta Farm Press say no. Brumley says he's out of answers. “There's no way to know if we did anything wrong. I don't know if the current economy is the biggest factor. I don't know if this referendum was too soon after the last. I don't know if we lost proponents along the way or, because the vote totals were up, the opposition just had more coming out.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.