One of the wonders of the electronic age is that you can have a good-sized portion of The New York Times delivered to your doorstep via e-mail. Sometimes that can be good (i.e., the op-ed columns of Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman) and sometimes not so good (i.e., The Times' potshots at farm subsidies and Corps of Engineers flood control projects).
Thus it was with some trepidation the other day that I clicked on a Times editorial titled “Good Boll Weevil News.” I would not have been surprised at a call for a plan to rescue the pest. Instead, the Times' editorial writers were saluting the fact that, after 25 years of spraying and pheromone trapping, the Agriculture Department had finally beaten the “wily little beetle” into submission. (It did not mention that cotton growers had borne much of the program's cost.)
Being employees of the Times, the writers apparently could not resist another dig at farm programs. “For many in the weevil's range — and indeed for the struggling cotton industry — this may be better news than another farm subsidy,” the editorial said.
Overall, however, the editorial was complimentary of the progress made on eradicating the boll weevil and of the contributions of scientists like James Tumlinson III, who discovered the chemical makeup of the pheromone used in the boll weevil traps that now dot the southern landscape.
It also gave credit to a National Public Radio report, which included interviews with Dick Hardee, research leader with the USDA Agricultural Research Service's Southern Crops Insect Management Laboratory at Stoneville, Miss., and Bill Griffin of the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.
The NPR report, which included lines from songs about the boll weevil, also cited Hardee's work on the pheromone, which involved analyzing more than 30 pounds of boll weevil droppings.
Another fact overlooked in both the Times editorial and the NPR report is that the fight to eradicate the boll weevil isn't finished; that program managers continue to wrestle with “hot spots” such as those in northeast Arkansas and in parts of Texas where growers have not approved eradication efforts.
They're also grappling with reluctant farmers in northwest Mississippi who recently rejected a 10-year maintenance program that BWEP board members say is crucial to keeping the weevil from re-infesting 600,000 acres of cotton. A second referendum on the program is scheduled for Aug. 4-15.
And there's the Rio Grande Valley in Texas where growers voted out the program after an explosion of beet armyworms coincided with the beginning of eradication in the mid-1990s. Cotton leaders continue to worry that the weevil will slip back into the Cotton Belt through the RGV.
As nice as it was to hear the Times editorial writers and NPR say something good about agriculture, the report of the demise of the boll weevil was probably a bit premature. The cotton industry and program managers still have a ways to go before they can claim victory over the pest.