Early this year, it was revealed that two Arkansas cotton farmers had yet to pay required 2001 boll weevil eradication fees. By early April, the large-acreage farmers — allowed by the Arkansas Plant Board to pay assessed fees late — eventually paid the money owed. Still, the tardy payments didn't sit well with many farmers who paid their fees on time.

One Arkansas Plant Board employee says he fielded many calls about the two operations.

“The farmers who were calling were concerned that these two growers would be able to get away with not paying. But that wasn't the case. Not only did these growers pay interest on the late money, they'll also likely pay a substantial penalty,” says the official.

What does one do when faced with delinquent boll weevil eradication fees? In the case of the two prominent, east Arkansas farming operations, officials within both the Arkansas Plant Board and the eradication effort say the options weren't good.

“Legally, we could have plowed their fields under or we could have placed a lien on their cotton. In reality, the biggest hammer we have is probably the lien. But those options are extreme, and we tried to work with (the farmers) to keep from doing either,” says Doug Ladner, eradication program head.

However, following much criticism, both the Plant Board and the Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Board (which works under the Plant Board's oversight) have made it clear that such tardiness won't be allowed again.

“This will not be an ongoing situation. The Plant Board sent out a newsletter restating the policy trying to explain exactly what lead to the delinquency,” says Ladner.

Daryl Little, assistant director of the Plant Board, says the boll weevil board recommended that penalties of $9 per acre be assessed against the late payees. The Plant Board met in mid-April and voted unanimously to impose the suggested penalties. However, the board also agreed to suspend 80 percent of the penalties if all the 2002 fees and reports (reports on intended acreage along with half of assessments are required by mid-June) were submitted in a timely manner. The farming entities have 30 days to appeal the penalties.

“This was a big deal. This issue came up in every monthly meeting the boll weevil eradication folks held. There was a lot of concern from farmers claiming they had to plan their financing, borrow money to pay their assessments and yet not everyone was doing the same. There was definitely a sense of real concern about that from farmers throughout the Delta,” says Little.

But even with the latest problem, Little says the program is working well.

“I'm very pleased with the way the producers in Arkansas have supported the eradication program. We have a 100 percent collection rate now. I don't think many other states can claim that. While several producers may have been late in paying, they've come through.”

Did the size of the operations involved (the operations total nearly 30,000 acres combined) play a factor in allowing the late payments?

“Maybe. But it should be pointed out that there are smaller entities that haven't been able to pay on time, either,” says Little.

Last summer, one self-financed producer had serious health troubles in the middle of the growing season, says Little. The producer requested relief from meeting eradication deadlines because he was going to be recovering from surgery. While neighbors helped grow his crop, the farmer was granted a waiver and was allowed to make a late payment.

“But, as with these two big farmers, there was never a question about him making the payment. Everyone is in this together and everyone pays.”

The Arkansas Plant Board has made it clear that no gin certificates will be issued in 2002 unless all fees are paid, says Little. “A much stronger position has been taken. Essentially, cotton producers have been told they need to come up with the eradication money on the front end.”

Regarding the eradication program overall, Ladner says everything looks good for 2002.

“We've trained employees, we're mapping fields, and traps are out. The traps we've got out, as far as I know, haven't yielded many weevils. That'll change in a few weeks. We're hoping for a light spring so we can kick them while they're down.

“The wet weather is interesting. If it keeps up, it'll be a problem in getting all the traps out and checking them. But of more interest is if it keeps up, land that was originally set to go into corn could revert back to cotton. Corn planting could be delayed and cotton could come back out of necessity. We're keeping an eye on that.”


email: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.