The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In U.S., ruinous cotton boll weevils are exiled to a ‘last frontier’

Round bale pickers harvest cotton around Snook, Tex., about 80 miles northeast of Austin. (Mark Felix for The Washington Post)

ROBSTOWN, Tex. — When Charles Niemann started farming in 1960, he knew the threat of the cotton boll weevil made his livelihood risky. He treated his fields in South Texas with pesticide every few days, up to 16 times in a season. Profits were spent spraying during the next season.

To call the quarter-inch beetle a pest would be an understatement. It’s prolific and quickly destroys cotton once it enters a field. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates it cost the industry more than $100 billion in the 20th century, accounting for inflation.

Niemann, 80, saw the impact firsthand. Two of the three cotton processing companies in Refugio County went out of business in the 1970s. The third was a co-op, and members chipped in to keep it running.

“I got to where I was just barely planting cotton,” Niemann said. “I was just trying to keep the gin going so it wouldn’t go broke.”

When the idea of a boll weevil eradication program was floated in Texas in the 1990s, Niemann and others griped about the cost. Farmers would have to foot more than 70 percent of the bill — about $23 an acre. But entomologists explained that working together to attack the beetle with its life cycle in mind would mean being on the offensive instead of the defensive.

“It was the best money we ever spent,” Niemann said. “It put cotton back on the map.”

Through the diligence of public-private partnerships like the one in Texas, the cotton boll weevil population has been whittled down and eradicated everywhere in the United States except on the “last frontier” of the Rio Grande Valley in the southern tip of Texas. And this year, the number of weevils trapped there is the lowest it has ever been. Officials are guardedly optimistic.

“As far as the weevil population [goes], we’re in the best shape we’ve ever been in,” said Patrick Burson, chief administrative officer of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation. “I need to find a big piece of wood to knock on. It’s scary just because it’s new territory for us.”

The foundation trapped 3.7 million weevils in the Rio Grande Valley in 2006. In 2018, the number was 96,000. As of Sept. 1 this year, they’d trapped just 147.

“Back when we started, we’d catch so many weevils in a trap that we couldn’t count them,” said Lindy Patton, president and chief executive of the foundation. “We used a measuring cup and knew how many weevils per ounce or inch.”

Cotton boll weevils, which originated in Mexico, were first identified in Beeville, Tex., in 1894. By 1915, they had spread across the Cotton Belt and wreaked havoc on the crop, leaving families destitute during the Great Depression. By the 1970s, one-third of all pesticides applied in the United States were used to fight the boll weevil, according to the USDA.

“Instead of hearing flies buzzing around the field and other beneficial pests and seeing them, it was pretty much a sterile environment,” said Jimmy Dodson, a farmer in South Texas and former chairman of the National Cotton Council.

The first of a patchwork of eradication programs started in parts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi in 1971. It was successful, so efforts spread elsewhere.

In the Lone Star State, boll weevil traps with pheromones are set up around fields and along roadsides. When the beetles are seen in the traps or on cotton in the field, the infestation is reported to the eradication foundation. Then targeted spraying begins.

The beetles need cotton plants to feed and reproduce, so getting rid of the plant after the crop is harvested has been key to eradication. In most areas where cotton is grown, a hard winter freeze will kill off the plant, giving the bug nowhere to go.

But the Rio Grande Valley has a tropical climate where freezes are rare. Cotton in that region must be harvested by Sept. 1. After that, all of the plants are destroyed. The eradication foundation sends employees out to search for errant cotton that may have fallen off trucks into a ditch, carried away by birds or spread by the winds of a tropical storm. They have to make sure there is nowhere for the boll weevil to live until cotton is planted again in late March.

But even if South Texas does its part, there’s still the issue of boll weevils that come across the Rio Grande from Mexico. There has been a binational effort for farmers in the Tamaulipas region in northern Mexico to control the weevil population with the same tactics.

“It’s been a long journey, and a difficult one, but it’s been highly rewarding,” Dodson said. “It’s kind of like eradicating smallpox or polio. It takes dramatic effort.”

Dodson has seen his yields double since the program started and the eradication of the boll weevil has been fruitful for the state’s wider economy. Farmers are buying more equipment and other inputs for the actual production. When cotton is harvested, it goes to the gin, or processing plant, which employs dozens of seasonal workers. Then it’s off into the hands of textile workers and fashion designers.

“There’s all this economic activity that centers around cotton once it comes off the stalk. Cotton is a really big economic driver in our area, but across Texas as well,” said Jeff Nunley, executive director of South Texas Cotton and Grain Association. “Having that stability in the crop, that’s been a big benefit.”

As close as they are to eradicating the boll weevil completely, farmers and the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation aren’t in the clear just yet.

When interviewed in mid-August, Patton was hesitant to even talk about how well they were doing, in the same way you don’t say “no hitter” before a game is over.

“That’s kind of our fear right now,” Patton said. “Things are this good. What are we missing? What are we not doing that we need to be doing?”

Then, in early September, boll weevils were found in a 62-acre field south of McAllen, just miles from the Mexico border. Within a few days, more than 500 beetles were counted. The foundation is still trying to figure out how the infestation started.

Patton hoped the numbers would taper off because it was just one field out of more than 6,000 that are monitored in the Valley, but after a few more days, the season’s count jumped to 2,111 boll weevils.

“While this was a big disappointment, it shows how fast weevils can multiply and why we have to be diligent about every detail,” Patton said.