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Ten more years of protection

Tennessee cotton producers urged to vote in the state’s 2019 Boll Weevil Eradication Program referendum this month
Story by: Sarah Geyer 2/25/2019


Thanks to the Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP) passed in the late 1980s, Tennessee cotton farmers haven’t seen this destructive and costly insect in a decade. The BWEP statute requires a referendum every 10 years to continue the program. With the last vote held in 2009, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is asking cotton producers to cast their votes from March 11-22 at their local Farm Service Agency.
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Although the boll weevil hasn’t made an appearance in Tennessee for 10 years, the mere mention of the destructive insect still casts fear in many of the state’s cotton producers.

First spotted in the U.S. in 1892, the “billion dollar bug” decimated cotton production for more than a century, designating the boll weevil as one of the costliest pests in America’s agricultural history.

In the 1950s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Cotton Council of America jointly passed a resolution requesting targeted research on eliminating the boll weevil.

By the 1970s, the research had led to a large pilot program in North Carolina and Virginia, which proved a great success. That led to the creation of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program (BWEP) and its slow but steady implementation across the South’s cotton belt.

Tennessee’s state legislators voted to allow the implementation of BWEP in the late 1980s if a two-thirds majority of cotton growers voted in favor of the program. Following the passage of the regional referendums, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture (TDA) introduced the BWEP in 1994 in Middle Tennessee and expanded into West Tennessee in 1998.

According to Boyd Barker, the TDA’s BWEP administrator, anecdotal research in Tennessee mirrors data from Georgia indicating that after BWEP implementation, cotton insecticide use has been reduced 40 to 90 percent. And fewer applications positively impact not only profits but also the environment, creating a win-win situation for everyone.

Another notable result of the BWEP is the state’s significant increase in cotton yields.

“Yes, other things have surfaced at the same time, including improved varieties and new technologies,” says Barker, who also serves as the TDA’s Middle Tennessee public affairs coordinator. “But there’s no denying that the program has been a major contributor to the state’s increased cotton yields.”

Fewer insecticide applications and increased cotton yields are no doubt important benefits, but the state’s eradication of the boll weevil in 2009 is the program’s crowning achievement.

“It took a lot of hard work and a $140 million investment to achieve this,” he says, adding that monies for the BWEP prior to 2009 came from assessments on cotton growers, funding from the TDA, and cost-share from the federal government. “We’ve had 10 years of cotton production in the state without boll weevils, and we want to keep it that way.”

That’s why the TDA is talking about the Boll Weevil Eradication Program now. Based on the statute, a referendum is required every 10 years to continue the program. With the last vote held in 2009, the state’s cotton farmers are asked once again to cast a “yea” or “nay” for BWEP.

From March 11-22, Tennessee cotton producers will have the opportunity to vote at their local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office. Before casting a ballot, producers will be required to sign an affidavit stating that they grow cotton and will vote in only one county. The process will also provide a mechanism for landlords who rent their land on a share basis to utilize a special power of attorney granting their operators the authority to vote on their behalf.

In keeping with the 2009 referendum, this year’s ballot will include a $5-an-acre assessment rate cap.

“While the initial assessment rate was as high as $29.50 in one case, we shared with the cotton producers that our goal was to get the rates to $5 an acre after eradication,” says Barker. “We’re very pleased to have greatly exceeded that goal.”

In the last 10 years, the assessment rate hasn’t risen above $1.50 an acre, and Barker says he expects that trend to continue for the foreseeable future.

“Even though we are able to maintain the BWEP in Tennessee solely on cotton grower assessments at $1.50 an acre,” says Barker, “we cannot let this nominal rate lessen our appreciation for protection against boll weevils moving back into the state.”

In the horse and buggy days of 1892, it took 30 years for the boll weevil to move across the country’s cotton belt. Imagine how quickly they could artificially migrate by hitchhiking on vehicles and equipment in today’s mobile society, he says.

“Without the traps and monitoring through the BWEP,” says Barker, “the pests could be back in Tennessee cotton fields in a short matter of time to once again wreak havoc.”

Currently, the only place the boll weevil is known to exist in the U.S. is in the southernmost part of Texas. According to Barker, the state has achieved 90-plus-percent boll weevil eradication; however, with Mexican cotton production just across the Rio Grande River, complete eradication hasn’t been possible due to natural migration from Mexico.

“Even though the cotton producers in northern Mexico have a desire to get rid of the boll weevil, and our country has worked with them, for reasons out of our control, eradication in that area just hasn’t yet been accomplished,” he says. “And as long as we have a boll weevil problem in southernmost Texas, we have a potential problem in Tennessee.”

For more information about the 2019 BWEP referendum, contact your local FSA office. For additional information about Tennessee’s BWEP, visit TDA’s website at

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