All hail the mighty boll weevil

by Paul Holmes (paulh@talkbusiness.net) 131 views 

Unless you have served in the Army or argued with that irritating voice in your GPS while seeking a shortcut to the Gulf Coast, you may not be acquainted with Enterprise, Ala.

Enterprise, a city of some 28,000, sits adjacent to Fort Rucker, home of Army Aviation and depending on how much you and Siri argue, is less than two hours from Destin, Fla.

A century ago Enterprise memorialized what could have been a death knell to most communities in the rural South where King Cotton ruled the agricultural economy.

Smack-dab in the middle of Main Street Enterprise erected a 13-foot-high female figure rendered in Classical Greek stands, holding high above her head a plate topped by a giant version of the boll weevil, the tiny pest that wreaked havoc in cotton country throughout the South.

Enterprise’s boll weevil monument is said to be the world’s only known monument to an insect. But the boll weevil is no ordinary insect. Rather, it is said to have been responsible for billions of dollars in cotton crop losses since it somehow made its way across the Texas-Mexico border at Brownsville about 1893. The tiny insect then promptly ate its way across the South and into infamy.

In 1903, the chief of the USDA’s Bureau of Plant Industry called the cotton-boll destroying pest’s swift movement “a wave of evil.” The weevil reached Mobile County in 1910 and by 1916 had spread throughout the state, reports the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Adult boll weevils do their damage by puncturing the cotton “square,” the pre-flower bud of the cotton plant and laying their eggs. When the grubs hatch, they come out hungry, eating up everything inside so that when the boll opens, the cotton lint is gone, and so is the farmer’s product and profit.

In the early days of the weevil infestation, cotton farmers in south Alabama tried a number of control methods including earlier planting, homemade insecticides, and even controlled burning, which failed to produce the desired results. The devastation persisted.

Some scholars contend that when the disruption of the cotton economy began in the early 20th century, it was one of the factors that fueled the start of the Great Migration of African American workers to the north.

“I cannot think of another insect that’s displaced so many people, changed the economy of rural America, and was so environmentally injurious that everybody clearly rallied around and said, ‘We have to get rid of it,’” Dominic Reisig, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, told the Smithsonian magazine in 2017.

Why then, would the leaders of Enterprise erect a monument to the nasty little beetle that laid waste to the fibrous foundation of southeast Alabama’s economy, one might ask.

Unable to control the weevil by then-available means, farmers in the region found that the best strategy for beating the bug was to switch to other crops, particularly peanuts. The first farmer who switched from cotton to peanuts in Coffee County was said to have paid back his loans and put a tidy profit in his pocket the first year.

Other area farmers quickly followed suit in diversifying their plantings and reaping the benefits. That lesson is not lost on today’s diversified farmers throughout the South.

Citizens of Enterprise erected the monument to the boll weevil in November 1919 with an accompanying plaque at the foot of the statue reading, “In profound appreciation of the boll weevil and what is has done as the herald of prosperity, this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”

If that were the end of the story, it would still be a pretty good story, but perhaps nothing more. However, that’s not the end of the story, but rather the beginning.

Though farmers in Coffee County were able to switch from cotton to peanuts, the boll weevil continued to march across the entire South. Many farmers and dependent industries were unable to switch quickly. One estimate puts the nationwide economic loss in 1950, said to be the worst year of the crisis, at $750 million.

But as the weevil continued its disruption of the South’s economy, so too, did efforts to contain it. The Encyclopedia of Alabama credits the boll weevil with the development of the Cooperative Extension Service and the growth and importance of the agricultural experiment stations, renewed interest in the philosophy of integrated pest management, the development of field scouting and the rise of the agricultural private consulting industry. Nearly a century later, the weevil is largely under control.

Reisig says, “It was a really special time and place when everything lined up right. We had political unanimity. The government was willing to give money on the federal and state level” to solve a devastating problem.

Fast forward to today. A devastating pest we don’t need. The will to solve difficult problems — we could use a lot of that.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at paulh@talkbusiness.net. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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