The Impact of the Boll Weevil
The boll weevil crossed the border from Mexico into Texas in 1893; ten years later, in 1903, it was poised on the Louisiana border. The boll weevil, a beetle of the order Coleoptera, differed from the cotton bollworm, a moth larva. The weevil went through four stages of development, taking about 25 days to mature. The insects reproduced very rapidly and were extremely resistant to all kinds of weather conditions. If a single pair mated in the spring, it could produce as many as 250,000 offspring by fall. Up to 50 percent survived the winter.
The boll weevil attacked the boll itself. Cotton has three outer leaves, or bracts, surrounding a four-sided husk, or square, in the center of which the boll grows. The weevil made a hole in the square, sucking out the fluids. It then laid its eggs in the square's center, where the new larvae developed. The larvae ate the interior, the cotton boll died, and the bracts began to curl. The interior, instead of producing a cotton boll, began to rot and fell to the ground, releasing the weevils, which then moved on to a new plant. One of the methods of controlling the weevil, therefore, was for farmers to pick up and destroy the squares containing the larvae and mature weevils.
The weevil represented an enormous threat to the economy of the South. Louisiana opened its Boll Weevil Convention in 1903 with a manifesto against the weevil: "The state of Louisiana is threatened on the west by an insect known as the cotton-boll weevil____If we consider the amount of money that is in circulation, we realize the immense importance of the crop."17 In short the entire economy of the South was at risk.
In 1887, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established Agricultural Experiment Stations in the land grant colleges and hired Cooperative Extension Service agents to work directly with farmers. With the appearance of the weevil, the Service began to distribute information on how to control the insect and to educate farmers on techniques that would increase cotton yields and farm income. At the time the weevil first arrived in the South, farmers had no chemical controls, hence management focused on other methods. Scientists worked with farmers to develop labor-intensive approaches. Farmers plowed up fields after the fall harvest and burned the stalks and litter that harbored the weevils, thereby preventing the weevil from over-wintering. They released cattle into the fields to eat the leaves, stalks, and litter, at the same time fertilizing the plots with manure. Farmers also initiated new methods of planting. They planted earlier in the season so that the cotton would set its bolls before the weevils multiplied and became too numerous. They also made use of early-blooming and early-setting cotton varieties. And finally, in 1910, planters began to use chemical pesticides, the first being Paris Green (copper acetoarsenite). The results were limited in scope, however, owing to variations in commitment and practice among farmers and the resilience of the weevil.
Historian Pete Daniel points out that "the boll weevil did not discriminate by the race of the farmer," forcing both white and black farmers to seek aid in combating the new agricultural threat.18 Black extension agents worked with black farmers to bring to their attention improved methods of controlling the weevil and raising crop yields. Black scientist Booker T. Washington, who headed up Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, developed it into one of the primary institutions in the South to benefit African-American farmers. Through the Tuskegee Negro Conference, county fairs, short courses, and leaflets, he helped to disseminate improved techniques. Another educational method was the Jesup Agricultural Wagon, backed by New York banker Morris Jesup, which traveled throughout the countryside with information for black farmers. Although the new methods were helpful, they were also expensive, and the combination of declining yields and higher costs drove many farmers out of business.
The effects of the boll weevil on southern agriculture were not entirely negative, inasmuch as it forced the diversification of crops and the improvement of farming methods. In Enterprise, Alabama, for example, farmers began to raise peanuts, which, by 1917, had become the area's major crop. Farmers prospered, harvesting more than a million bushels a year, and marked their success by erecting a statue of the boll weevil, the world's only monument celebrating a pest.
The boll weevil remains a pest today. In 1993, the Texas legislature, along with other southern states such as Florida and North Carolina, began a boll weevil eradication program. They received funds from the Department of Agriculture for a $3.9 million program in Texas. As a demonstra-
tion, 500,000 acres were sprayed with malathion. Boll weevils, along with other insects, were indeed killed. But removal of insect pests led to an outbreak of armyworms that destroyed 90 percent of the cotton crop. As a result, farmers went into debt. Rachel Carson's 1962 book, Silent Spring, and the research that followed it made clear the ecological problems caused by pesticides. Broad-spectrum pesticides kill many insects in addition to those targeted and, when chemicals are concentrated in the food chain, they can negatively affect the numbers of and relationships among other organisms in the environment and create health problems for humans who work the land and consume the products.
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