Ron Smith: A man for all seasons

For the last three decades, Ron Smith's name has been virtually synonymous with a seasonal crop — cotton. Smith's tireless efforts, though, have been anything but seasonal. Throughout his long tenure as an Extension cotton entomologist, Smith has striven to be a man for all seasons, working throughout every season, every month and, more often than not, every day of the week on behalf of cotton producers.

This passion for work, no matter how hard or time consuming, is a trait Smith acquired growing up on a small family farm in north Alabama. “There was very little mechanization associated with small family farms even as recently as the 1940s and 1950s,” he says. “We were pretty much hands-on with everything we did, from cattle and swine production to cotton and corn. It was a pleasant but a very hard experience. Hours didn't mean anything. You just worked until you ran out of daylight.”

Ironically, Smith, widely considered one of the Cotton Belt's premiere Extension cotton insect experts, didn't originally start in entomology. After completing his bachelor's degree in agricultural science from Auburn University, Smith stuck around to earn a master's in agronomy and soils with a minor in entomology — an interest gained working one sweltering summer as a cotton insect scout.

His first job was as a conservationist with the Soil Conservation Service, now the Natural Resources and Conservation Service. After a year, he decided to return to Auburn to pursue a doctorate in entomology.

“I figured that if I went back to Auburn, I could pursue a doctorate in entomology, specializing in soybean insects. By that time, I had really gotten away from cotton.”

Despite his burning desire to be a row-crop entomologist, there were no openings when he graduated. He spent the next couple of years as an assistant professor of general biology at Judson College, a private school in Marion, Ala., teaching courses he had never taken as an undergraduate — endocrinology, human anatomy and physiology.

“It was a struggle, very hard work,” Smith recalls with a smile, “But it was beginning to get easier after two years.”

Just as he was finally adjusting, Smith got the call he had been waiting for — an offer to return to his beloved Auburn University to work as Extension cotton entomologist.

Smith returned to Auburn during an era when cotton farming still comprised an integral part of the economy of every Alabama county — a fact reflected by almost endless travel from one cotton meeting to another during the growing season.

“We seemed to have a shade tree meeting in every county during the summer, and we followed this up with winter production meetings in every county during the off-season. It was just one meeting after another.”

Cotton insecticides available to growers were radically different, too.

“We were nearing the end of the chlorinated hydrocarbons. We were working with only about four or five insecticides — one being DDT. Others included toxaphene and endrin, both of which are long gone.”

Life cycles, thresholds, when to start spraying and application techniques were the main topics of conversation back then, Smith says. Virtually every farmer in the state, certainly in central and south Alabama, had to start a spraying program by July 4.

The dominant cotton pest at that time, of course, was the boll weevil — a pest that carried a special set of challenges.

“When you started treating for weevils, you killed beneficial insects, too, and this set up worm problems for which we really did not have adequate controls until pyrethroids were available.”

With the advent of pyrethroid chemicals later in the 1970s, cotton insect control changed radically for the better — for a while, at least.

“We had entered a new era in insect control with pyrethroid insecticides,” Smith says. “They were good with virtually all pests — all economically significant pests, at least. You could spray at intervals of seven days. And over the next 10 or 15 years, cotton insect control became very simple.”

But as he and other entomologists soon learned, this was merely the calm before the storm.

“We started losing some ground with resistance,” Smith says. “We began turning up more aphid damage in areas where pyrethroids were used intensively.”

By the 1980s, growers also were encountering similar resistance problems with tobacco budworms — a problem made even more challenging as growers began implementing the steps associated with the boll weevil eradication program.

“It was just a very difficult and challenging period for growers,” Smith says. “And it was largely because of the secondary problems — the area-wide, multiple spraying. Because of this, we ended up making our resistance problems much worse.”

Beet armyworms, for which no adequate chemicals were available, almost proved to be the final straw for producers. Smith remembered the years battling against beet armyworms as an “endless round of phone calls and daylight to dark travel.”

“I remember telling someone recently how I've used cell phones regardless of time limits for the last 15 years to keep in touch with growers. And I remember that in the peak of the beet armyworm battle, my phone bill topped $1,200 one month. And that was in 1989 dollars.

“But that was the least I could do when the growers were incurring $40 million in losses. We went from daylight to dark flooded with phone calls, and there was very little we could do for growers to solve the problem.”

Fortunately for his growers, a radical change — this time for the better — soon overtook the cotton industry. First, the weevil was eradicated, and growers were down to only a few sprays. Then, transgenic Bollgard cotton, the harbinger of what soon turned out to be a biotech revolution, first appeared on the market.

Alabama was the only state in the United States where these two major milestones — the successful completion of boll weevil eradication and the widespread adoption of transgenically altered cotton — occurred simultaneously.

Smith played a major role introducing both of these innovations, though his involvement with the Boll Weevil Eradication Program proved to be a rocky and frustrating relationship from the very start.

Smith, who had always prided himself on providing growers with accurate, unbiased information, took issue with some of the claims made by BWEP representatives.

“There were people outside the state coming here with the eradication program presenting themselves as experts when they had only limited knowledge of the boll weevil problem here,” Smith says. “We sometimes found ourselves at odds with them because they were not always right.”

Smith's biggest beef with the BWEP was the representatives' repeated insistence to farmers that it would cost comparatively little to eradicate the weevils.

Looking back, though, Smith says he believes these overly optimistic efforts turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“We knew from the beginning that the leaders of the program were very inaccurate with their projected costs,” Smith says. “They had to return to the growers time and again to ask for more money to run the program.

“But as it turned out, this may have been the only way to sell the program because if we had started out with these high prices, the growers never would have voted it in to begin with. And all the good we gained from boll weevil eradication never would have been realized.”

Smith is largely credited with the almost wholesale switch to transgenic cotton in Alabama in 1996 — a switch that many experts believe, saved countless cotton farms from extinction.

“Growers were desperate for some kind of solution,” Smith says. “We had endured two crop failures due to tremendous insect damage — the greatest loss ever sustained by a commodity over such a short period of time.”

Growers by the hundreds heeded Smith's advice. Within a year, more than 77 percent of cotton acreage in Alabama was planted in Bollgard cotton — a reflection of the deep, abiding trust Smith had built among cotton producers in the course of his career.

With the end of the weevil and the advent of transgenic cotton, the use of insecticides dropped markedly, to the point that many growers managed to get through the entire season without applying any sprays.

“We went from this intense spraying to no spraying beginning in 1996,” Smith says. “Since that year, the input of insecticides throughout much of the Southeast has been minimal compared to what we have known historically.

“For those of us who have been around for a long time, it's really become a breeze.”

This month, Smith will formally retire as an Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist. But true to form, he has no intention of resting on his laurels. Smith will continue serving cotton growers as a contract entomologist for the Extension System.

Looking back on a 31 year career, Smith says he has always prided himself on his dogged insistence on serving as a source for accurate, up-to-date information for producers.

“When I go to a growers' meeting, I'm not telling them what I've learned from reading research in a library. I'm telling them about something with which I've had hands-on experience and that I've often been able to compare against similar findings in other states.

“If what you've learned compares favorably to research in other states, it gives you tremendous confidence in what you're telling growers. We've never been afraid to go out on a limb with growers if we had accurate information to back up our recommendations.”

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