Ballots will be mailed to Mississippi cotton growers in eradication Region 2 by county Farm Service Agency offices beginning July 8. Producers have until July 19 to cast their vote for or against a maintenance program to complete eradication of the pest. Votes are scheduled to be tallied July 25.

The referendum will provide cotton growers with the choice between a 10-year boll weevil eradication maintenance program, and no program at all. At least 50 percent of eligible growers must vote and 66.67 percent must approve the referendum for it to pass.

“Growing cotton without the boll weevil eradication maintenance program would be like fighting a fire that never got put out,” says Blake Layton, Extension entomologist with Mississippi State University.

The original five-year eradication program voted on by Region 2 growers expires at the end of 2002. For the program to extend beyond that and into the completion of eradication requires another vote. The upcoming referendum will authorize continuing the eradication program for 10 years at a maximum assessment of $12 per acre. Eradication program leaders project the assessment will be less than that, depending on the amount of cotton acreage planted and the expenses of the program.

“Following 2003, we feel like the spraying will drop off drastically and trapping will be reduced significantly,” says Farrell Boyd, director of the Southeast Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. “So, assuming we make the strides we expect to make and we don’t have to spray more area than we have budgeted, grower assessments should decrease.

“We have made considerable progress even though we certainly have not achieved eradication statewide, or even region wide, as yet in any of the four regions,” says Boyd.

Overall, Boyd says, 29 counties statewide are almost weevil-free with less than 0.05 weevils trapped per acre. Another five counties have some localized spots where weevils are still being trapped, and four counties across the state are considered actual “hot spot” areas with continued boll weevil pressure.

Region 2, according to Boyd, has seen an almost 94 percent reduction in the number of boll weevils trapped per acre since 1999. “Looking back, we ended up with almost 52 percent of the cotton fields in region 2 with zero boll weevils captured in 2001,” he says.

“One of the most significant things that has happened in the world of entomology is the fact that the annual Mississippi cotton insect loss estimate reports a zero loss of yield to the boll weevil, beginning in 2000, and continuing in 2001,” Boyd says.

In March of 2001, the Mississippi State legislature authorized a change in the eradication effort’s maintenance program from a period of five years to a period of 10 years. State legislators also amended the boll weevil law to allow for a maximum annual grower assessment of $12 per acre, instead of the previously set $5 per acre fee.

However, if additional government funding is secured for the program, the grower assessment could be lowered from the $12 ceiling set by law.

If the maintenance program were to be voted down, cotton growers in the region could face repercussions, according to Harry Fulton, assistant state entomologist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce Bureau of Plant Industry.

“It may cost you more to get out of it than to stay in it,” says Fulton. “There is a quarantine on the books, and if it were enacted anything that might move boll weevils out of the area, including cotton pickers and module builders, would be regulated by the state. There will be expenses either way, and some could be significant.”

Cotton grower John Swayze of Yazoo City, Miss., says, “You should realize what investment you’ve put in it over the last five years, and think hard before voting out this program just when you’ve got the weevils where we need them.”

“So far, $140 per acre has been invested in this program,” says Boyd. “There is a significant investment there. The cost of the maintenance program is only two boll weevil control applications. To throw this program out the window would just be a great injustice.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com