In another referendum on boll weevil eradication, cotton farmers in Arkansas' Mississippi and Craighead counties began casting votes Dec. 1 and will continue to vote until Dec. 14. Assessments for eradication are for $8 per year per acre for seven years. After that, the cost would be up to $3 per year per acre for maintenance.

Even at those costs, however, producers in the area could balk at the plan. Weevils, they say, just aren't costing them that much money.

The two counties are, however, costing both Arkansas and bordering states plenty. The Southeast Foundation, which runs eradication efforts in Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri, is facing a buffer zone bill of $4.6 million in 2003. Dealing with buffer zones around the counties is costing Arkansas between $3.5 million and $3.6 million.

Still, the facts within the referendum counties are very different from those outside them.

“I know some Mississippi County farmers that grow cotton on a bunch of acres. On some of these large farms, the only boll weevil habitat is a drainage ditch that runs down one side of the fields. They can strip-treat along that ditch and watch a few other potential hot spots around tree lines and whatnot and take care of the situation. They don't have to spray the vast majority of their farms,” says one cotton industry leader, who spoke on condition he not be identified — an indication of the contentiousness of the eradication debate in the two counties.

The insider says these farms end up spending around $2 or $3 per acre on weevil control in a year. In light weevil years, they might spend less than $2. In such circumstances it becomes obvious why they don't want to pay for the eradication program.

“Everyone talks about the bottom line. Well, in this case, the bottom line tells them not to agree to pay between $7 or $10 per acre to deal with this when it's costing them less than half of that otherwise. Economically, for some of these farmers, it's not even worth considering. Farmers aren't fools when it comes to weevils. They know they're taking a bit of a hit in some parts of their fields. But at the end of the day, they feel if the eradication program goes through they'll essentially be taking out their billfold, opening it up, and letting someone reach in there and pull out a wad of hard-earned cash.”

Farmers in the two counties have wrestled with eradication and pressure to conform to a program for several years. David Wildy farms 6,500 acres of cotton around Manila, Ark., and says the experience hasn't been pleasant. “We've been looked on as the bad boys up here,” he says. “That isn't really fair. We're not against eradication. We're for the concept and where it's needed, we're for it. But what hasn't been explained adequately to those outside these two counties is that up here, we don't need it.”

Wildy says while the current plan still isn't economically feasible for the majority of farmers in the holdout area, it narrows the gap.

“I think it's time for farmers up here to sit down and look hard at this. With this plan, eradication is as cheap as it's ever going to get for us. That doesn't mean it's going to make me money. No. It will actually cost me money — much more than I ever spend spraying for weevils. But the consequences that could come about if we don't vote this in — the quarantine threats and whatever — mean that this referendum may be the lesser of two evils. It may be time to get this passed and behind us.”

A key problem in getting farmers in the two counties to buy into the program is one of approach, Wildy claims. From the Carolinas to the holdout area's front door, the “selling” of weevil eradication to producers has been painted as one of necessity. But until now, Wildy and his neighbors haven't even considered buying into that.

“The whole thrust of these programs was to present eradication as economically feasible to the grower,” says Wildy. “Everywhere else growers wanted the program, begged for it, pleaded for it. But when they reached us, they'd been dealing with that viewpoint for so long they didn't seem to be able to switch gears. Before us, eradication leaders hadn't come across an area where growers didn't need the weevil gone and certainly didn't need a program. They didn't know how to deal with us.”

If you look at scouting records from holdout farms, says a consultant, who also asked to not be identified, many never reach weevil threshold levels all year. Other farms are willing to take a little damage but prefer to let beneficials “do their thing at full strength rather than spray. They're willing to live with that trade-off even though everyone across the South seems to be down on them.

“I grew up in cotton country, and I know that once you start spraying for something you've got to keep on with it. Once you spray and knock beneficials out, it's almost guaranteed you're going to have to spray again. Some of these farmers don't want to get into that game.

“And I've always said, ‘If you're paying my bills, you can have a say in what I'm doing. Otherwise, I'll listen, but ultimately I'm going to do what I think is right and to hell with majority opinion. I've got to keep food on my table and clothes on my kids' backs. If you ain't paying the bills, don't complain about how I spend — or don't spend — my money.’

“With that in mind, you can understand why farmers in these two counties have the mindset they do. The farmers up there would love nothing more than to have the boll weevil eradicated from the South. But a bunch of them can't stomach the cost.”

It's very difficult to find anyone willing to talk on the record about the referendum. Don Plunkett, Arkansas Extension cotton verification coordinator, says he understands the reluctance. “If I was a farmer and was against the eradication effort, I wouldn't talk either. Too much heat could come down from either side on this. I think this has as good a chance to pass as there's been (the last vote failed to reach 67 percent — the number needed for passage — by only a handful of percentage points), but who wants the scrutiny? Why upset your neighbor? Why give whatever side you're opposing any ammunition? This is a hot potato up there.”

Plunkett knows what weevils mean to a cotton crop in different regions. He has verification fields in both the referendum area and outside it. In one, near Crawfordsville, Ark., (an area that buffers the two non-eradication counties) he got calls seemingly every week telling him the field was at threshold for weevils and would be sprayed.

Another verification field is inside the referendum area near Blytheville, Ark., on the Missouri border. Plunkett never sprayed that field — not for overwintering weevils, not for the active production season.

“We did pick up some live weevils after we'd discontinued our spraying program for all pests. The numbers just weren't there. It's possible that we may have knocked the weevils back when spraying for worms during the season,” he says. “But we're looking at nothing near $7 or $8 per acre to treat for weevils. If you look at hard, cold numbers, that's just the truth.”

The cotton industry leader quoted earlier says the horror stories told about eradication crews are numerous and frequently cited. “The stories may be bogus — hell, they may be urban legends for all I know — but with all the bad news floating around it isn't putting too much confidence behind these votes. You hear all kinds of stuff: fields missed, pipes getting run over, risers getting torn up, eradication personnel driving brand new SUVs while Farmer John is driving a rickety pickup… all kinds of stuff.”

These stories are told and retold in every rural coffee shop across the cotton-growing part of the state. Wildy has heard them. “A lot of what's being said concerns the eradication crews. A grower will say, ‘Well, the cost of this thing is dropping, but if we vote this in, we're still going to have to deal with headaches from these folks. I don't know if I want to put up with it.’”

“(Negative stories are) something the pro-eradication folks — and count me among them — have to admit to and deal with,” says the insider.

“Despite all that, I now look for this to pass. Jim Brumley (head of the Southeast Foundation, which will run the effort if it passes) is the main reason for that. I think he's going to swing this thing. Brumley is saying things farmers in the area want to hear. He's addressing concerns head-on, and farmers seem to like what he's got to say. Brumley is just a down-home, easygoing, good old boy. Farmers relate well to him and like him. He rolls up his sleeves and seems to be ready to pitch in.”

Wildy agrees. “Brumley has said it well: ‘The northeast Delta zone has enough weevils in it to re-infest the world. But it doesn't have enough weevils to make it economically feasible for the zone to enter into an eradication program.’ I think that's very well said, and it makes me happy to know he grasps the situation. His approach — which is not to point the finger and accuse us of being rotten folks — is appreciated.”

“In the end,” says Wildy, “I'm not going to tell a farmer, a neighbor, how to vote. Everyone should consider this carefully, try and remove emotion, be aware of all the issues and make very sure he's comfortable with how he votes. Whatever the tally turns out to be, we're going to have to live with it for a long time.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.