After rejecting boll weevil eradication five times, eastern Arkansas' Mississippi and eastern Craighead counties are facing the prospect — and expense — of having a program forced upon them.
In early March, the Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation board asked the state Plant Board to push eradication-holdout counties (which represent some 350,000 acres of cotton) into the program. It was suggested that a program could be imposed under the 1917 Plant Act.
While the costs to farmers in the holdout counties (the Northeast Delta zone) aren't being cited yet, one thing is certain: assessments will be higher than the $8 per acre that was rejected in the last two referendums. The $8 cost was brought low due to promised funding from both federal sources and the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (which administers the eradication program in Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi). While some of that funding may still be available, much has been lost.
“This act deals with nuisance pests and protection of crops. The Plant Board has accepted the (foundation) proposal and is currently trying to work out a way to pursue it in committee. If it's to be done, we have to thoroughly check everything because the act hasn't been used in a while,” says Mark Stoll, Arkansas Plant Board apiary manager.
What's the underlying idea behind using this law? “The law deals with any nuisance pest, so boll weevils fall under that. Interestingly, Tennessee has a similar pest law they've invoked to deal with a tide of kudzu vine. This law is the last-ditch way to deal with this.”
While many farmers within the holdout counties say they have weevil control costs of less than $2 per acre annually, their refusal to join the program is costing the eradication foundations dearly. A 15-mile-wide buffer strip around the two counties will cost some $7 million this year to treat. Those promoting the use of the 1917 act point to that high cost — and the possibility of raising assessments on farmers currently in the program to pay for it — as ample reason to strong-arm the holdouts.
Stoll believes if a program is imposed it won't be met with smiles.
“I suspect that the (holdouts) won't be happy if forced into the program. But when there's so much at stake — look at the all the money spent on eradication both nationally and just here in Arkansas and the Delta — this must be looked at as an option.”
Many are asking why the law wasn't simply invoked after the first couple of referendums failed. Why go through five referendums before threatening the act's use?
“It's because the votes were so close percentage-wise. We almost reached the needed two-thirds every time,” says Stoll. “And if you can get it passed through a vote, obviously it means the program implementation goes a lot smoother. People don't like to have a program forced on them or hear us say, ‘This is the way it's going to be.’”
Among foundation board members, Mark Bryles cast the only no vote to asking the Plant Board to initiate a compulsory program. Bryles is from the holdout area and says he tries to view the situation from both sides.
“I understand why the (foundation board) did what it did. I think there's still a chance to make some minor — or even major — changes in the law to make it acceptable to the holdouts. Surely that's preferable to a compulsory program,” says Bryles.
“Everyone prefers not to do this. If this is forced on farmers, I suspect there will be rancor. Farmers are asking why even have referendums if a program can be forced on unwilling participants. Well, after so many farmers vote the program in, their interests must be protected too. At some point, the Plant Board is compelled to offer protection.”
Bryles is making sure a “forced” program isn't the only thing being pursued. “The (foundation) is giving some thought to possibly initiating an eradication program in the southern part of Mississippi County. It would require another referendum and involve about 75,000 acres of cotton.”