What is in this article?:
- W. Bruce Heiden, Buckeye, Ariz., is this year’s Far West Farm Press/Cotton Foundation High Cotton Award winner, and is closing in on his sixth decade of growing cotton in an environment unlike that of any other U.S. Cotton Belt state.
- No other Cotton Belt state has had to deal with the consortium of pests that have plagued Arizona: boll weevil, pink bollworm, whitefly and assorted other plant bugs, nematodes and lepidopterous pests — often one or more in the same year.
- Heiden has not only survived the challenges of Arizona cotton, but has been a state and national industry leader, bringing growers together to cope with problems such as destructive pests.
Les manages the feedlot, and Art works primarily on the farm. They’ve all shared in the cotton growing challenges, and all agree the whitefly crisis almost brought down the Arizona cotton industry.
“It was unbelievable how bad it was,” says Hal, who was an ag pilot then. “We had to clean the plane’s windshield before every pass — they were so thick, you would almost suffocate.”
The whitefly put Arizona cotton on the brink of extinction. But salvation came with a couple of new insect growth regulators (IGR). “They saved us,” Hal says, “and they are still effective today because of product stewardship.”
Arizona growers and local congressmen lobbied hard for a special use permit from EPA to use the materials. Their effectiveness was enhanced by manufacturers’ insistence on one application per season of Knack and Applaud (later renamed Courier) to ward off any resistance problems.
“The whitefly and pink bollworm hit us at the same time,” Hal says. “We were spending up to $350 per acre on insecticides. The insects were putting us out of business.”
The IGRs turned back the whitefly and insect resistant Bt cotton varieties controlled the pink bollworm.
“Bt cotton saved the Arizona cotton industry,” Bruce says. “When we were treating for pink bollworm, we were creating more problems with other insects — often sterilizing fields and killing beneficial insects.”
Art Heiden was heavily involved in the whitefly crisis as the industry mustered forces to control the pest. He notes that the crisis introduced a new technology into Arizona agriculture — the cell phone.
“Most farmers did not have cell phones, but when the whitefly started creating chaos, everybody got one so they could call around to their neighbors to find out what was happening with the whiteflies. Growers were very frustrated with the whitefly, and they were calling everyone to see what people were using to try to control it.”
The hordes of insects not only caused yield loss, Bruce says, the honeydew they secreted created sticky cotton — which was all the more devastating because growers couldn’t sell their cotton. Textile mills refused to buy Arizona cotton, sticky or not.
The stickiness issue all but shut down advance contracting of Arizona cotton and placed a severe a financial strain on growers, he says. “We used to be able to forward contract, but when the whitefly came in, no one would buy Arizona cotton unless it was tested in the warehouse and certified free of stickiness.”
Heiden, Scott and many others even went to Asian mills to talk with buyers and explain to them that not all Arizona cotton was sticky and to outline what growers were doing to control whiteflies.
Bob Norris, retired Calcot president, recalls the effort to remove the stigma from Arizona cotton.
“They were successful, but it took a lot of time and work by Bruce, Bill Scott, Ron Rayner and others. The whitefly and sticky cotton just about decimated the Arizona cotton industry. If the leaders of the industry hadn’t put together a program to control it and then communicate with the textile mills, I am not sure cotton would have survived. It took a lot of time, but the stigma went away.”