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South Texas Farmers Making Gains in Fight Against Boll Weevils

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, eradication efforts aimed at the boll weevil — an insect that can destroy the yields of cotton plants — are benefiting in part from the current drought.

Field Unit Manager Stephen Daniel of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Program checks a boll weevil trap located adjacent to a cotton field in Mustang Ridge, Texas, Aug. 14, 2013.  Daniel uses a TBWEP pickup truck as a mobile office where he weekly checks dozens of traps for the pest insect outside of Austin.

Texas’ drought has left crops parched across the state, but the lack of water could have unintended benefits for South Texas farmers in one of the state’s longest-running agricultural battles.

For the past two decades, the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation has conducted a program to eliminate the ubiquitous beetle, which punctures cotton pods to lay eggs that destroy the plant’s yield.

By setting pheromone traps to detect weevils, spraying chemicals to eliminate them and changing farming practices to minimize re-infestation, the program has 15 of its 16 zones reporting no indication of boll weevils over the last year.

The exception has been in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where tropical storms and even drug cartel activity have advanced the boll weevils’ growth. But in the past year, weevil numbers have dropped precipitously, which some farmers hope is a death knell for the insect.

“It looks really good,” said Lindy Patton, the foundation’s president, saying he was cautiously optimistic. There were fewer than 2,000 trapped weevils in the Valley in July, he said, compared with nearly 17,000 captured at the same time last year.

Part of the decline is attributable to the drought, which has hurt farmers but “reduced the food source” for weevils, Patton said. He stressed the drought was not good news, “but overall, we think it’s helped this year with being able to deal with fewer acres of cotton out there.”

The Valley is “the last stronghold for weevils,” said Charles Allen, an entomology professor at Texas A&M University and a former program director of the foundation. Despite the program’s “rocky” past in the area, the new statistics “look really promising,” he added. 

The rosy outlook belies a struggle to achieve statewide eradication that has persisted since the insect first crossed the border from Mexico about 1892, Allen said. For most of the 20th century, farmers fought against their failing yields.

By the early 1990s, “the boll weevil was literally ruining our cotton business,” said Woody Anderson, a Colorado City farmer and longtime advocate for the program. “It created a great deal of expense to try to control it with pesticides, and we could never eliminate the boll weevil by spraying individually.”

When the eradication program was proposed in 1993, farmers had mixed responses to the program’s compulsory fees and strict growing schedules.

“A lot of them just quit,” said James Prinz, a Coupland cotton farmer who supports the program. “They had to have some teeth in the program to make it work.”

Prinz said Coupland hasn't seen weevils for four years thanks to the program, but the insect is stubbornly hanging on in South Texas.

Citing South Texas’ tropical climate, Jimmy Dodson, a Nueces County farmer and president of the National Cotton Council, said the region is probably the nation’s most challenging eradication area. There are no freezes that help kill off weevils, he said.

The climate also makes the area more prone to tropical storms, which can help weevils re-infest functionally eradicated areas as they migrate with the wind, Patton said.

Drug gangs in Mexico have, in a way, also hindered eradication efforts.

“Farmers in Mexico are sometimes told not to go into their fields” whenever the cartels are operating in the area, which prevents consistent monitoring of the weevil population there, Dodson said.

Even if South Texas farmers emerge victorious in the weevil fight, planting cotton will still face challenges — among them, the same drought helping push the weevils out of the state.

This year, Prinz did not plant cotton on his farm for the first time in 35 years.

“Cotton is really drought-hardy because it can suck that moisture down deep, but you have to replace it,” he said. After two years of drought in the state, his non-irrigated farm lacks the moisture needed to grow a plentiful crop, he said.

“I can’t supplement the cotton” with profits from my own crops, Prinz added. “It has to pay its own way.”

Yet Aaron Anderson, no relation to Woody Anderson, a Coupland farmer who initially opposed the program, is still growing cotton. “I’ve got to plant it to justify owning the equipment,” which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, he added.

Still, Anderson said he had decreased his cotton acreage “trying to cut back a little on expenses, too.”

Regardless of market conditions, farmers agree that eradicating the weevil “is a much better life for everyone,” Dodson said.

“One of the most frustrating things about being involved in farming is that there are a whole lot of issues that are key issues in deciding your success or failure that you have little control over,” said Dodson. The presence of the boll weevil, he said, is not one of those issues.

“They wandered up here, and they caused a lot of misery for over 150 years,” he said. “It’s time for them to be gone.”

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