Lower Rio Grande Valley cotton farmers and landowners who lease acreage to those growers recently approved by a significant margin a referendum that will allow a boll weevil eradication program to begin with diapause control in late season 2005.

More than 74 percent of participating voters favored the measure. Passage required only 66-2/3 percent.

This effort will work differently than a failed attempt back in 1995.

“This vote means that cotton will be back on track and being grown competitively with other zones, eventually reducing the impact insecticides have on the environment,” says Sam Simmons, whose credentials include president of both the Cotton and Grain Producers of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the Texas Cotton Producers. He's also a cotton grower.

“It's a great thing,” says Ovi Atkinson, cotton and grain producer from Harlingen. “We are happy that it passed and we are anxious to see the benefits.”

Atkinson says a neighbor scrutinized production records and found that boll weevil spray applications were costing him $75 per acre. “And we were still losing yield,” Atkinson says. “I hope we see better than a 10 percent increase in yield when we get this crazy pest eradicated.”

Atkinson credits a lot of hard work from the LRGV Cotton and Grain Producers for the margin of victory. “They did a great job and the timing was right,” he says.

Acreage, he says, likely will remain stable for most growers, even with lower cost and increased yield potential. “We're maxed out on acreage for our farm,” he says. “We will stick to a 50/50 (cotton and grain) rotation.”

The effort will start as a diapause program near the end of the 2005 growing season (10 percent cracked boll) and continue until no host plants are left in fields. In 1995, the program began as a spring treatment, which, according to Simmons and John Norman, a semi-retired Extension integrated pest management specialist and current consultant, was a crucial mistake.

Simmons says the 1995 start was in a “rushed and hurried fashion (that) killed most beneficial insects and left nothing to control silver leaf whitefly and beet armyworms.”

Those pests devastated the crop, leaving Valley cotton farmers with yields of less than 100 pounds per acre.

“Hopefully, changes in the program this time around will let growers become competitive with their northern neighbors,” Norman says.

Norman says the program had to be designed differently for the Valley than in any other part of the state. “We don't really have a winter,” he says. “We can find boll weevils reproducing in December, so we can't count on a hard winter killing off weevils.

“We will not have another spring start, thank goodness,” he says.

Norman says the program will begin with a diapause-like treatment, though diapause may not mean in the Valley the same thing it does in other areas. “It's a late-season control strategy,” he says. “We'll start sometime in June.”

Norman says another significant change in the program will occur the first spring. “The program does not include any boll weevil sprays in the month of May 2006,” Norman says.

Growers hope to avoid secondary pest infestations by giving beneficial insects the month of May to increase populations and take care of pests. After the first year, the program will continue as it has in other zones, Norman says.

The theory is that with two diapause control seasons and one spring season (possibly including overwinter treatments but no sprays in May) weevil populations will be reduced enough that heavy weevil sprays will not be necessary and that secondary pest flares will be limited.

“We want to avoid the problems we encountered in 1995,” Norman says. “After we knocked out all the beneficials, the crop had no chance when beet armyworms showed up.”

Norman hopes this program will be successful. “With a new strategy, a more efficient program and different personnel, we hope farmers make the program work and rid the area of the boll weevil. Clearly, (The Boll Weevil Foundation) has made a lot of changes since 1995. Many of those changes were first suggested here. I just hope it's successful for our growers.”

He says no farmers in the country appreciate the devastation boll weevils cause more than those in the Valley. “We've dealt with weevils here longer than anyone in the United States,” he says. “They came in around Brownsville.”

Simmons says the affirmative vote represents a significant turnaround for Valley growers.

“Farmers tried to secure changes in the program (in 1995), but having no luck on that front addressed the legality of the assessment,” Simmons says. “Then Texas Attorney General John Cornyn found the organizational structure was flawed and shut down the program, allowing the zone to opt out. After such a horrendous year the Valley voted not to keep the program.”

But the boll weevil stayed, as did other production problems.

“Since 1995 the LRGV irrigated cotton industry has suffered through nine years of cotton problems with 2004 and 1997 being the only good years,” Simmons says.

For most years since 1995 farmers maintained yields in many dryland areas and scattered irrigated farms in the Valley. “But the boll weevil was eating away at profits, due to damage, increased insecticide costs and applications,” Simmons says. “Many producers were spraying 8 to 12 times just for weevil control.”

Simmons says the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation Inc., has proved it's worth and value “by making the boll weevil a non-economic factor in other Texas zones.”

Valley growers need that same kind of success. “In the past nine years Valley farmers have suffered through drought and a failed water treaty with the Mexican government, in addition to the pest problems.

“Fortunately mother nature intervened in 2004, providing water that Mexico would not (provide) due to increased consumption by an increasing agricultural industry in Northern Mexico.”

Web Wallace, a crop consultant, says estimating how long growers would have to wait before seeing significant results from eradication efforts is difficult. “A lot can happen, but by 2007 we ought to be seeing some benefits. In 2005 we'll just do the diapause treatment and in 2006 we'll do overwinter weevil sprays in April and then skip treatments in May. So, 2007 will be the first full-year for the program.”

Wallace says BWEP in other areas indicate that a new zone that's surrounded by active zones usually gets the job done a little faster.

A big beneficiary of the new zone could be the South Texas Winter Garden Zone, which has been fighting weevils for going on 10 years. “They actually went back a little bit this year,” Wallace says.

Removing weevils from the Valley, however, will eliminate one source of in-migration for the zone and could speed up the process.

A total of 467 producers and landowners voted for the proposition to create a new boll weevil eradication zone and 166 voted against it in an early November referendum.

Norman says he had no idea how the vote would come out. The big unknown was the landowner. “A lot of land owners do not live in the Valley and don't understand the problems,” Norman says. “And there are more land owners than farmers. But the ones who voted, voted in favor of the program.”

The program will be conducted on 250,000 acres, including Brooks, Cameron, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Kennedy, Maverick, Starr, Webb, Willacy and Zapata counties.

Simmons of Harlingen was also elected to the board of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com