The first ruling in a suit brought by a handful of cotton producers against the Arkansas State Plant Board has been made. Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Jay Moody said that boll weevil eradication assessments from the producers should be paid to and held by the Plant Board. Moody said the Plant Board must not deliver the funds to the Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation until the case is resolved.

“Essentially, we got what we wanted except the Plant Board will be holding the money instead of the court as we'd originally asked,” says John Rose, one of the plaintiffs. “We'd asked for the registry of the court to hold our assessments, but the judge wasn't comfortable with that. He preferred the Plant Board hold them, and we're fine with that.”

This way, says Rose, the plaintiffs can go ahead and “pay the taxes when they're due and get a grower's certificate that will allow their cotton to be ginned. I've had a couple of gins call me wondering what they're supposed to do this fall (gins are being threatened with a $50-per-bale fine if they gin cotton from a grower without a compliance certificate). This should help smooth things out and certainly allows my mind to rest a little easier. If we win our case, our money will be given back to us.”

In the suit, the plaintiffs argue that the Plant Board hasn't the authority to force producers from Mississippi and eastern Craighead counties (the Northeast Delta Zone) into the eradication program. Last spring, the counties, having rejected the program five times through referendums, were forced to join the program at a cost of $8 per cotton acre.

Members of the Plant Board maintain that the forced action was necessary to protect eradication investments made by cotton farmers throughout the Delta. If left unmolested, Plant Board officials say, weevils from the hold-out counties could easily re-infest areas where they've already been removed. And the cost of maintaining “buffer zones” around the hold-out area is prohibitive.

Holding the funds won't impact the eradication effort, says Danny Kiser, director of the Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. Malathion spraying has already begun in the Northeast Delta Zone and will continue. Kiser says enough state and federal funds are on hand to pay for the necessary sprayings this year.

Meanwhile, the Plant Board has filed a motion to dismiss the producers' case. A hearing on that motion will be heard Sept. 5. A trial date has been set for Dec. 1.

Making it clear he hasn't spoken to his attorney about the length of the trial, Rose says, “If it runs over a couple of days it would surprise me. Regardless, if things run smoothly, we should have a resolution by the end of the year.” Rose says since news broke about the suit, other producers from the area have called wanting information. Some have joined the lawsuit with others contemplating such a move.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com