South Carolina hasn't seen a boll weevil in 13 years, but cotton farmers are taking no chances.
At the annual meeting of the South Carolina Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation in Florence, the farmer-run organization prepared for the next step in the battle against the historic scourge of Southern agriculture: Having pushed the pest west, farmers are making a stand at the Rio Grande.
"We are in extremely good shape compared to where we've been in the past. We've made a lot of progress, said Jim Brumley, executive director of the foundation's Southeastern parent organization. "It's better than it's ever been. But it's a long way from where we want to be.
Brumley warned the group that an unexpectedly high number of boll weevils appeared this year in traps in South Texas, where farmers and government officials have set up a buffer zone to keep the bugs from re-infesting U.S. cotton fields.
With funds paid by cotton farmers, the Boll Weevil Eradication Program began with trials in Virginia in 1978 to exterminate the pest. Working state by state through the following decades, the program methodically forced the boll weevil back to Mexico, where it now is contained by a South Texas buffer zone with a barrage of pesticide applications triggered by an early warning system of weevil traps.
"Before the eradication program you could count on paying for 20-something sprays a year on your cotton crop to control insects, said David Howle, a lifelong boll weevil warrior who is retiring this year as assistant director of regulatory and public service programs at Clemson University. "You'd have a week to 10-day schedule of airplanes, with each spray costing you $10 to $12 an acre. Now you have one or two sprays a year on a typical cotton field, mostly for stink bugs or plant bugs.
Traps are maintained wherever cotton is grown an essential precaution because boll weevils are highly mobile bugs that can easily hitch a ride to another field or across the country by squirreling away in farm equipment.
"We're probably a thousand miles from the nearest boll weevil right now. But the last weevil we found in South Carolina in 2000 was right off I-20, Howle said. "We're certain he was a hitchhiker. He hopped on a piece of equipment making its way east. That's how a re-infestation can start.
Re-infestation would be devastating to the economy. Nationally, the cotton crop fetches about $6 billion a year. Cotton is South Carolina's most valuable field crop, earning about a quarter-billion dollars each season and covering as many as 300,000 acres.
The boll weevil has proved a formidable foe in the past. When it first entered the United States from Mexico across the Rio Grande in 1892, it spread rapidly through the South, laying waste to many fields and costing the region an estimated $13 billion in lost production through the years.
Cotton growers fund the eradication program through per-acre fee: $1.25 in 2013, rising by 50 cents next year to cover the cost of the buffer zone in the Rio Grande Valley.
"When farmers complain about the cost of the buffer zone, I always ask if they were cotton farmers in the '70s and '80s, because I scouted cotton back then and I can tell you, you don't want the boll weevil back, said Randy Lynch, who leads the South Carolina boll weevil eradication effort.
"The Boll Weevil Eradication Program been a real success story, Howle said. "I'd hate to write that check for $1.25 an acre, but it sure beats $12 an acre for each of 20 sprays, not to mention the environmental benefits of the vast reduction in pesticide applications. It's a small price to pay to keep the boll weevil south of the border.
It's fitting that the foundation meeting at Clemson's Pee Dee Research and Education Center was his final official duty for the university, because Howle and cotton go back a long way. As a teenager growing up in Hartsville, he earned money for his Clemson tuition by working as an assistant plant breeder for Coker's Pedigreed Seed Co. in his hometown.
His college agronomy study bachelor's and master's degrees at Clemson and a doctorate at the University of Arkansas focused on small grains and soybeans. But he never lost his affinity for cotton.
Fresh out of his Ph.D. program, Howle joined Oklahoma State University as an Extension small grain specialist.
"They presented me with 9 million acres of wheat, he laughs. "I was on the road all the time.
Carolina roads eventually called him home. He returned to Coker with a side trip to Mississippi when the company was sold and settled back home for good in 1990 when he joined Clemson as head of fertilizer and seed certification. The past 23 years have led him through a variety of leadership jobs in Clemson's regulatory unit, including a stint as its interim director.
Howle leaves the boll weevil program in a healthy position to continue protecting the state's growing cotton industry.
"I can't think of any better collaboration of research, extension, growers, industry and regulatory, all working together to get something done, he said.
"It's not a government program. It's a grower program, Howle said. "They created it. They voted for it. They run it. The government authorizes it. We help collect the funds. But they run it. We just facilitate it. I believe that's a large part of its success.