It hardly seems possible, but by the end of the decade, the boll weevil and its infamous proboscis may no longer inspire song, the construction of statues or change in livelihoods for U.S. cotton producers. It will be close to being done for, although officials wonder if “eradicated” is really the best way to describe post-weevil America.

The weevil certainly will lurk in the shadows, waiting for a slipup by complacent farmers. Indeed, the biggest obstacle the cotton industry faces in coming years is making sure that what is gone, stays gone.

Today, the cotton industry is getting down to the nitty gritty of boll weevil eradication. All eradication programs in the continental United States are now under way, according to Frank Carter, senior scientist, pest management, National Cotton Council.

Two last areas of cotton production in Texas, the northern Blacklands and lower Rio Grande Valley, have passed referendums. Diapause programs will begin this fall.

Eradication began in the fall of 2003 in two counties in northeastern Arkansas, despite growers having never approved a referendum for eradication.

In early 2003, cotton growers in eastern Craighead and Mississippi counties voted against eradication for the fifth time. The Arkansas State Plant Board, citing a 1917 law and the need to protect cotton crops outside the holdout counties, forced the opposition (and 300,000 cotton acres) into the eradication program.

Carter says that although boll weevil populations have been historically light in the aforementioned region, “it was surrounded on all sides by an active eradication program. There were enough weevils there that each one of the zones surrounding the area was having trouble containing weevils.”

Growers filed a lawsuit to stop the program. The courts ruled against the filing, and that decision is now in appeal with the Arkansas Supreme Court. The region is under a second full year of eradication, and the numbers are going down. Average weevil capture per trap in the two counties in 2003 was 9.5, which dropped to 1.5 in 2004, an 83 percent reduction.

“The central portion of Mississippi around the Hills is cleaning up some last weevils, and west Tennessee and Missouri are both in the latter stages of the program,” Carter said. “Louisiana is looking good. Texas is moving ahead. Average trap captures per week show 90 to 99 percent reductions. They are making real progress.”

There is not a boll weevil eradication program in Kansas, which expanded its cotton acreage to about 80,000 acres for 2005. “APHIS has paid for running some traps, and to date there have been no weevils captured there. We’re trying to put them in the right category. They haven’t conducted an eradication program, but they don’t have weevils either.”

There is good news from south of the border, too, according to Carter. The startup of Mexico’s boll weevil eradication program in infested areas adjacent to U.S. cotton-growing regions “is going to be a tremendous help in us being able to protect our investment. We have the prospect of having a buffer to the south along what is more of a natural break in cotton production. It would be difficult to maintain a zone in the United States if cotton was being grown on the other side of the border.”

The United States is providing some technical assistance to Mexico with help from Osama El Lissy of USDA-APHIS, former program manager for the Texas Boll Weevil Foundation. Help includes training staff on data collection, mapping and geographical information systems (GIS).

The Mexican eradication program is patterned after the U.S. program in terms of cost-share between the government and cotton producers.

With the final two U.S. eradication zones starting in 2005, “we could be three years down the road (2008-09) before we can start saying we’re finishing up the job,” Carter said.

Indeed, meaningful reductions in numbers should occur in the newest regions within three to four years, and most of U.S. cotton acreage will be eradicated by 2008.

Many of today’s cotton producers recognize the benefits of the boll weevil eradication program, especially on the development of a “top crop.” It’s difficult to say how much yield is directly attributable to eradication, however.

“We haven’t figured a way to tease out the contributions of boll weevil eradication away from that of Bt cotton and herbicide-resistant cotton,” Carter said. “We’ve had some pretty good yield numbers come out of Missouri and Tennessee. Missouri growers say they’ve seen yields that are stable at the high end of the yield scale. A lot of that is top crop, from protection from late-season worms or boll weevils.”

But will future generations also recognize this benefit? Many of the young men and women who will farm cotton land in 2045 have yet to be born, and by the time they take over for their parents or grandparents, the boll weevil may only be an historical footnote. Might they question the need to pay fees for scouting programs to make sure it remains that way?

Carter says complacency is a big challenge. “Some subcommittees of the Boll Weevil Action Committee are looking at plans on handling post-eradication — what safeguards we need, a budget and what supplies we need to keep on hand and making sure we have suppliers around. We have to finish the job and protect our investment.

“We need some type of authority, and I’m using the term authority loosely, to maintain a program. It may not take but one generation away from weevils for growers to get complacent or forget how bad the boll weevil is. We want to make sure each state and each grower share in the effort to keep the weevil out.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com