Georgia cotton's most notorious enemy, the boll weevil, was nowhere to be found in 2003. It's the first year this has happened since a program began to eradicate the weevil 20 years ago.
A year with zero boll weevils is a notable milestone, said Phillip Roberts, a cotton entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.
“Even though the boll weevil hasn't been of any economic consequence for a long time,” he said, “a lot of older farmers out there remember how bad it was. And a lot of young farmers out there want to never know.”
Virginia, north Florida and the Carolinas also reported no boll weevils last year, said Jim Wilson, the Southeastern Boll Weevil Eradication Program manager.
North Carolina has had zero reports before. It's been only in recent years, though, that cotton states have started reporting zero boll weevils.
“It shows that the eradication program continues to work with great cooperation from cotton states and farmers,” Wilson said.
Farmers now take extra care to clean cotton equipment that comes from states with reported boll weevil outbreaks, Roberts said. This has also led to fewer reported infestations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and farmers started Georgia's eradication program in 1987. Since then, cotton farmers have paid about $120 million for the program. They've produced about $6.8 billion worth of cotton since then, too.
The boll weevil was officially considered eradicated from Georgia in 1994. But it never completely left the state. Georgia workers monitoring traps reported 61 boll weevils in 2002.
The mighty boll weevil jumped the Mexican border in the late 19th century. It blew into Georgia cotton fields in 1914. Until then, cotton was king throughout much of the state.
But in seven years, the boll weevil crippled the state's cotton industry. It caused yields to drop dramatically. Out-of-work cotton laborers fled the state to find jobs elsewhere.
Many farmers just quit growing cotton. They turned to other crops like peanuts.
Farmers who kept trying to grow cotton in Georgia had to spray for the weevil as much as 20 times a year. This only worsened insect-control problems, since the sprays killed beneficial insects that kill cotton pests.
With the eradication program and new genetically modified varieties that provide their own insect control, Georgia cotton farmers now spray only a fraction of what they used to. Last year, Roberts said, they averaged spraying 2.5 times for insect control.