It's a buyer's market at Mississippi Boll Weevil Real Estate. There's plenty of leafy dwellings available but the neighbors aren't terribly accommodating.
“There's no other way to put it: things are just looking great. Through July 18, we've only caught 10,442 boll weevils in the whole state. At the same time last year, we'd caught 1.6 million weevils. That's a 99.4 percent reduction,” says Farrell Boyd, the man who heads Mississippi's boll weevil eradication program.
This past cold winter, which ended a string of warmer winters, gave the state a lot of benefit in fighting the pest. But when you look at the percentage of population decline every year, the stair-step reduction is obvious, says Boyd.
This season, about 87 percent of the fields in the state haven't even had a boll weevil. That decreases a little each week. But as of mid-July that's remarkable, says Boyd.
Are there areas within the state hotter with weevils than others?
Some of the southwest parts of the state along the Mississippi River have the highest counts. Adams County (Natchez is the county seat), is the hottest in the state with 598 captured boll weevils.
“That's still very low. Even at that rate, the county is only looking at around 124 weevils per 1,000 acres. We'll take that for sure. When we go back and look at the first year of the program to now, we've had something like 99.8 percent reduction in the numbers of trapped weevils. The results have been phenomenal.”
Further good news is only 22 fields within the entire state have confirmed boll weevil reproduction occurring.
This year, only 4.8 percent of the cotton acreage in the state has had to be treated for boll weevils.
Fourteen cotton-growing counties (Lawrence, Covington, Forrest, Perry, Rankin, Lee, Newton, Winston, Choctaw, Clay, Oktibbeha, Noxubee, Lowndes, and Jones) haven't even had a boll weevil captured in them so far.
Besides the colder winter, another factor — the most important, Boyd says — that has pushed weevil numbers so low is the fact that Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee have begun eradication programs of their own.
“We were getting a tremendous amount of weevil influx from those states prior to their starting up programs. When they started knocking populations back with diapause treatments, it stopped the flow of weevils back into Mississippi. Weevils were coming in from the north and west very heavily for some time.”
Has the cost of the program dropped yet or will those savings come next year?
“The costs will be greatly reduced this year. It's hard to say just how much, but we anticipate the spraying costs to be significantly less — at least 60 percent less than was projected at season's start,” says Boyd.
If that turns out to be the case, any excess funds will go toward reducing debt.
“We had to borrow money on the front end to get this program up and running. We'll just pay the loan off early. Every region still has outstanding debt because of front-loaded money. The first couple of years, the cost is much higher than the (acreage) assessment that's coming in.”
Following an eradication phase, the different regions within the state vote on a maintenance program. Where do the regions stand in that regard?
Earlier this summer, Regions 3 and 4 voted to go into a maintenance program next year, says Boyd. Farmers there agreed to a 10-year maintenance program not to exceed $12 per acre per year.
“Next year will be the last under the original referendum for Region 2. The farmers there will vote on a maintenance program some time next year. Region 1 (both 1-a and 1-b) will vote on a maintenance program in 2003.”
Without a maintenance program, Boyd says, weevil reinfestation wouldn't take long.
“There's a lot of opinion on how long it would take for weevils to perk back up. But I'd say it's a safe bet that within two to three years, we'd be back to where we were originally. They'd be back with a vengeance.”
Boyd says his views are bolstered by showing that the majority of cotton in the Mississippi hills (about 512,000 acres in the area) is planted in Bt varieties. That cotton gets very few insecticide treatments and weevils could build back rapidly there. The Delta, which has seen Bt acreage jumps of its own, could also face a similar situation.
The one nagging problem that Boyd mentions isn't with weevils, but rather with the means to capture them. “We always have traps destroyed. In some areas — particularly in the Delta — it's difficult to find obstructions like telephone poles within a field to stick a trap next to. Therefore, any piece of equipment, but especially things like an 8-row cultivator, can easily knock a trap down. Sometimes that's just unavoidable.
“Many of the trappers we hire are inexperienced in how large farm equipment really is. They don't understand the amount of space needed to make turns in one of those big machines. From the time trappers start work at the beginning of the year, there's a bit of a learning curve. They have to be out for a little while before they know where to put the traps. That's just the way it is.
“But we do have a few instances where it seems folks go out of their way to cause problems for us. Road crews are sometimes less than delicate around traps. They'll come through clipping rights-of-way and little mercy is shown.”
By and large, though, most folks try to avoid the traps, says Boyd.
“They know it's an important program and they're helping themselves and their farming neighbors.”