Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Had it not been for Cotton-Eyed Joe...

You can blame cotton for a lot of things. An all-cotton garment will shrink in hot water. In raw form, cotton bolls can scratch your hands. And cotton provides the perfect nesting ground for a nasty little critter called the boll weevil.

The boll weevil is so despised and feared, that southern states have formed "boll weevil eradication zones." Here's what the Handbook of Texas Online has to say about this snarly little pest:

"The boll weevil is a snout beetle (Anthonomus grandis) first named by Carl H. Boheman, a Swedish systematist. He assumed that the specimens came from Cuba, but modern research indicates that they were collected near Veracruz in 1840. Ancient specimens have been found from the earliest times in the valley of Mexico. The ravages of the insect have been known in Mexico for at least two millenia. American entomologists became aware of the boll weevil as a cotton pest as early as 1880, but its first introduction to Texas seems to have been announced by Charles W. DeRyee, a druggist of Corpus Christi, in a letter dated October 3, 1894. The insect, which proved to be one of the most devastating pests ever introduced to American agriculture, was definitely identified by Dr. Eugene A. Schwarz. The boll weevil is about one-fourth inch in length and changes from white to black as it matures. The beetles are susceptible to winter freezes, and those that survive hibernation emerge in the spring to feed for five or six weeks on the tender growth of young cotton plants. As the season progresses, they eat and lay eggs in the cotton buds and new bolls. Each punctured bud or boll falls to the ground and becomes food for the eggs that hatch in two or three days. The boll weevil migrated across the Rio Grande and had spread from the Valley to the Sabine and Red rivers by the beginning of the twentieth century. By 1903 it covered all of eastern Texas to the Edwards Plateau and by the 1920s had reached north and west to the High Plains, then encompassing all the geographic areas of Texas cotton production. Boll weevil infestation caused a steady drop in cotton yields over a thirty-year period. The greatest destruction was in the South Texas fields. In 1904 an estimated 700,000 bales were lost to the boll weevil, at a cost of $42 million. Damage that resulted in about a 6 percent yield reduction in 1910 leaped to a 34 percent reduction in 1921. Fifty-three years later the per-acre yield reduction due to boll weevils still hovered at 7 percent and cost an estimated $260 million.

Unlike many other insects, the boll weevil was resistant to conventional insecticides, poisons, and then-known antipest practices. Its spread from Mexico depended on a combination of appropriate weather conditions and cultivation practices, coupled with a shortage of cotton gins. Cotton bolls with seed were often transported from the lower Rio Grande valley to gins as far north as Alice, and this practice may have contributed to the spread of the weevil. Basic information on the relationship of the boll weevil to the cotton plant and other cultivated plants was explored by C. H. Tyler Townsend, one of the many colorful personalities involved in the early fight against the boll weevil. Townsend was an official of the United States Department of Agriculture who traveled through southern Texas in 1894 and reported as much as 90 percent crop damage in that area. In 1899 the state appointed Frederick W. Mally, an entomologist, to direct state efforts to combat the insect. Mally launched a cultivation plan intended to produce crops early, before the weevils multiplied. But record freezes that delayed early planting, heavy rainfall, and the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 all combined to help spread the boll weevil in spite of Mally's brilliant but seriously underfunded labors.

In 1901 E. Dwight Sanderson succeeded Mally as state entomologist. He continued many of Mally's programs, but in addition the Texas legislature chose to offer a $50,000 prize for discovery of a way to rid Texas of the boll weevil."

Why my sudden interest in boll weevils, you ask?

Because, after posting our growing crops the other day, I received this e-mail from a colleague at Dallas Heritage Village:

"So I was catching up on my RSS feeds and noticed that you guys are growing cotton. Yeah cotton!

Question: did you have to do anything special to get permission to grow cotton? I know there are rules with the whole boll weevil eradication stuff..."

My reply? OOPS!

So it turns out that Tarrant County actually IS in a boll weevil eradication zone...which means, among other things, that we cannot grow cotton on site without a permit. This is yet another example of how complicated it can be presenting "the past" within modern constraints.

Don't you hate it when that happens?

Fortunately our cotton has not produced, and more than likely wasn't going to produce, because today our cotton will be liberated (pulled) so that we are in compliance.

But we had a good run! And I learned a LOT about cotton-growing in Texas.

And we're not ashamed to admit when we're wrong...

1 comment:

kidlithistory.com said...

Poor little cotton plant! At a previous job, we grew cotton and had the little boll weevil indicators in the field, which aren't period at all, but are required. Will let you know if we end up growing cotton legally!