Northeast Mississippi cotton growers will soon be faced with the decision whether or not to continue in the boll weevil eradication program, which, according to one program advisor, is an economic success story.

While boll weevil trap counts are reported to be higher in the fourth year of the program than was anticipated by the eradication program's technical advisors, program proponents say the problems are minimal as compared to the overall success of the program.

In the fourth year of the eradication program, northeast Mississippi cotton growers are continuing to find some boll weevils in their traps. Program advisor and entomologist Aubrey Harris says while that's discouraging, it is not an accurate indicator of the program's success. "We have confirmed that there is some reproduction going on, and we have confirmed migration as a factor because we found weevil populations near the northern state line where there was no cotton planted. It's troubling and it's costing the program more money with that happening," he says.

"We can make excuses - such as mild winters, weevil migration and Bt cotton - why things aren't happening the way they should be. But the truth is, we can't find any technical or operational weaknesses in the eradication program," says Harris at Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss.

The "big" story, Harris says, isn't the program's difficulties; it's the economical success of the eradication program. "We've estimated that 70 percent or more of the growers in regions three and four did not spray their cotton crop with insecticides this year, excluding any early-season thrips control.

"What I've seen in northeast Mississippi is a crop with essentially no damage from insects in an area where boll weevils would have been bad enough to take out the top crop before the eradication program began," says Harris. "I saw no damage from boll weevils or plant bugs in several fields I toured this fall in eradication regions three and four, and only very slight damage from bollworms or budworms in non-Bt cotton. It is my impression that not a single pound of cotton was lost to insect damage in those fields in northeast Mississippi this year."

He says, "When you are not spraying cotton for boll weevils, there's an interaction that allows beneficial insects to control aphids, spider mites, bollworms, tobacco budworms and armyworms. This important interaction allows you to spray less insecticide in an effort to control these other pests."

If growers were to vote out the eradication program, Harris projects the boll weevil could return to the area within one year, and could return to pre-eradication population levels within two years. "If that were to happen, growers would again be faced with a minimum bill of $50 per acre in control costs plus the costs of a sustained crop loss."

According to Jeannine Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corporation in Starkville, Miss., the corporation's board of directors has not yet set a date for cotton growers in regions three and four to vote to extend the five-year program. However, she says, a referendum will be held before the current ballot ends next year in the two eradication regions located in northeast Mississippi.

With the originally approved five-year boll weevil eradication program ending in 2001, cotton growers must decide whether to continue the program in order to maintain the eradication of the boll weevil. The proposed assessment for growers to continue in the program is estimated to be $12 per acre, per year. However, it should be noted that the Mississippi Boll Weevil Management Corporation has not officially set the per-acre program fee for any time beyond the five-year period originally approved by growers in the eradication areas.