After numerous failed referendums, the Arkansas State Plant Board has voted to force cotton producers in the state's boll weevil eradication holdout counties (Mississippi and eastern Craighead) into an eradication program. The vote came following a public hearing May 22 in Blytheville, Ark. For the first year of the program, producers will be assessed $8 per acre of cotton.
“As I understand it, a final request of the (Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation) will be made shortly and then we'll be off to work on this,” says Danny Kiser, who is at the helm of Arkansas' eradication effort.
“Right now, the plan is to begin the program during the diapause phase, and that means spraying would probably begin in August. To do that, we'll have to start ground operations immediately — traps out, equipment and people in place. Right now, until things are finalized, we're not spending any money. This is the planning phase.”
Kiser says it will take a major effort to get things up and running by August.
“But we believe we have enough trained staff to accomplish that.”
In early March, the foundation board asked the Plant Board to push holdout counties (which represent some 350,000 acres of cotton) into the program. It was suggested that a program could be imposed under the 1917 Plant Act. The act deals with nuisance pests and protection of crops.
While many farmers within the holdout counties have weevil control costs of less than $2 per acre annually, their refusal to join the program is costing eradication foundations dearly. A 15b-mile-wide buffer strip around the two counties will cost some $7 million this year to treat. Those promoting the use of the 1917 act point to that high cost — and the possibility of raising assessments on farmers currently in the program to pay for it — as ample reason to strong-arm the holdouts.
Mark Bryles, a foundation board member, was at the May 22 hearing in Blytheville. Bryles, who is from the holdout area, says there were probably “100 to 120 people” at the hearing.
“There are 16 members of the Plant Board and two were absent from the meeting,” he says. “There was a single ‘no’ vote opposing the implementation of the regulations, so it wasn't unanimous.”
Bryles had earlier voted against the eradication foundation asking the Plant Board to carry out a mandated program.
“We haven't gone through all the alternatives available to get this program accepted by producers willingly. I say that even though 54 percent to 66 percent of the producers who voted in the last four referendums were for an eradication program,” says Bryles.
And the issue of unwelcome eradication personnel arriving at private property to carry out their jobs hasn't been adequately considered, insists Bryles.
“A forced program is bound to kick off all kinds of problems — especially for the eradication personnel. There are producers who are very much opposed to having this forced on them. In that atmosphere, I'm afraid it will be difficult for the program to be carried out in an orderly manner.”
Kiser is hopeful that rancor can be avoided. “It's too early to answer how farmers in the two counties will respond to us being there. There was a lot of emotion at the hearing. People have different views on this. But on the whole, the hearing was orderly and respectful.
“Hopefully, as we go on, the growers will see we really try to serve them with this program,” says Kiser. “A big part of our plans is to include growers in eradication efforts. If we get the go-ahead with this, we'll be meeting with producers in that area to work through anything that might come up.”
Bryles “wouldn't be surprised” if a lawsuit is filed after the program is set.
“A lawsuit could challenge the constitutionality of this forced program,” he says. “Most knowledgeable cotton producers in our area know why the Plant Board is doing this. But still, my point is that a forced program isn't acceptable.”
Currently, some of the holdout county leadership is attempting to get additional federal funds to lower the assessment further.
“If they can get that done,” says Bryles, “I think it would make eradication acceptable to area producers. Will we get it? I don't know. But we're making the attempt, and we hope to get an answer in the next few weeks. If we can get the cost down just a bit more — say in the $4 to $5 per acre range — I think cotton producers will pass another referendum. That's infinitely better than forcing them into a program.”