This spring, Regions 1, 2 and 3 of west Tennessee will decide whether to approve a new referendum which would restructure and extend boll weevil eradication efforts. Ballots will be mailed to eligible voters in early March and are scheduled to be counted on March 25. The ten-year program would cost growers an annual maximum of $12.25 per acre of cotton. It is anticipated that assessments would drop to $5 per acre or less after the proposed, 10-year program expires. This prediction is based on costs in areas that have already completed eradication, such as middle Tennessee. If the proposed referendum passes, it will replace the current referendum, and growers will not pay the previously approved assessments for 2004 and beyond.

The current program includes a maximum annual assessment of $20 to 32.25 per acre, depending upon which region a farm is located. To date, grower costs have been reduced by about 20 percent because of state funding contributions. State support is expected to continue for 2004 and beyond, although how much is uncertain. Any state funding would offset some of the proposed $12.25 per acre fee.

The Region 1 program is scheduled to expire following the 2004 growing season. Three years of full assessments remain for growers in Regions 2 and 3 under the current referendum. If the proposed referendum is not approved, the eradication program will continue in 2004 based on the currently approved referendum. However, Region 1 producers in the southern counties of west Tennessee must pass a new referendum before the growing season of 2005 if eradication efforts are to continue.

Following “active” eradication programs, a maintenance program is necessary to prevent boll weevils from re-establishing within eradicated areas (and promptly dealing with any re-infestations). This is accomplished by maintaining a trapping and equipment infrastructure. In the long run, this job gets easier and cheaper as boll weevil eradication progresses across the Cotton Belt. However, calling the pending referendum a maintenance program is a misnomer because west Tennessee has not completed the active stages of boll weevil eradication.

The proposed referendum will cover operating expenses necessary to finish eradicating the boll weevil in west Tennessee. It will also refinance existing debt and include maintenance program costs over the next ten years.

Cost overruns have accumulated since the program began in west Tennessee during 1998. In particular, migrating weevil populations along the Mississippi River have elevated program costs during the last two years. Eradication efforts are behind schedule in southwest Tennessee, but the program has made great strides. Boll weevil populations have been reduced by over 92 percent across the state, and we expect rapid progress now that our leaky borders have been repaired with the inclusion of adjacent areas of Arkansas into an eradication program.

Before Tennessee cotton farmers vote, they should seriously consider the benefits of boll weevil eradication and the likely impacts of not approving a new referendum. Unfortunately, it is easier to quantify how much boll weevil eradication costs than how much it saves. However, average yields during the last three years are the highest ever in Tennessee, with no yield losses attributed to the boll weevil during this same time.

Contrast that with estimates of yield losses during the previous eight years, ranging from 2 percent to 18 percent and averaging about 5.5 percent. These losses occurred despite routinely making two to five insecticide applications for this pest each season. If these numbers are in the ballpark, economic losses related to the boll weevil have cost the average grower as much as the assessments dedicated to eradicate this pest.

Without doubt, some of the recent yield increases can be attributed to good weather, varieties with high yield potential, and the use of Bt cotton. But conservatively, the average Tennessee producer has increased yields by 50 pounds of lint per acre as a result of boll weevil eradication efforts. In a year of late cotton, such as 2003, many producers feel they made an additional 100 to 250 pounds of lint that would have otherwise been sacrificed to boll weevils.

What if west Tennessee never passes a new referendum? Expect boll weevil populations to return to pre-eradication levels in two to four years. Today’s cotton is a friendlier place for the boll weevil because of Bt cotton, restrictions on the use of traditional, broad-spectrum insecticides, and pyrethroid resistance in tobacco budworm populations (forcing the use of newer, selective insecticides in non-Bt cotton). It is impossible to calculate how much the adoption of Bt cotton, and the associated reduction in applications of broad-spectrum insecticides, has hindered weevil eradication efforts. But it is almost certain that spraying for boll weevils will increase if they are allowed to repopulate Tennessee.

Are there tools available to control boll weevils if they re-infest Tennessee? The answer is yes and no. Methyl parathion has all but disappeared from the market place. There are significant restrictions on the use of other traditional boll weevil products, and who knows how future regulations may impact the availability of other products. Newer products like Trimax and Centric will lose much of their utility because they lack activity on boll weevil. There is also the potential threat and costs of quarantines on equipment and cotton itself.

These realities are not intended as scare tactics, but rather, emphasize the importance of continuing boll weevil eradication efforts in Tennessee. The progress toward boll weevil eradication represents a significant investment and accomplishment of Tennessee cotton producers, but the greatest potential benefits of this investment lie ahead.

Scott D. Stewart is cotton IPM specialist and Chism Craig is cotton specialist with the University of Tennessee Extension Service.

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com