April 2018
Farm & Field

Extension Entomologist Dr. Roy Ledbetter’s Fight Against Boll Weevils in Alabama

 

boll weevil

The swath of damage left by the boll weevil is unrivaled by any pest since its arrival in 1910. The boll weevil onslaught came when Alabama’s economy was still reeling in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The weevil entered the United States from Mexico in 1892. The pest spread unabated across the southern United States for the next 30 years.

It wasn’t until the 1970s with the assistance of the federal government that programs were created to bring an end to the boll weevils’ destruction of cotton. Farmers who enjoy a cotton season without boll weevils have the efforts of Dr. Roy Ledbetter – an Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist – to thank.

Ledbetter began his service to Alabama farmers as an agent assistant in Houston County and worked his way to Auburn, serving farmers as an Extension entomologist. Most notably, he was given a special appointment in Washington to work on weevil eradication funding.

Ledbetter said he enjoyed the time in Washington because he was working to assist the producers at home in Alabama.

"Being in Washington was like my work in the field because it was all a service to farmers," Ledbetter said. "I always enjoyed serving others through my work with crop pests. Likewise, I was serving farmers through my special appointment. Farmers were depending on me for assistance and for answers."

During his time on assignment in Washington, Ledbetter developed and implemented a procedure for allotting funding to the states fighting boll weevils.

 

A county agent talks with Barbour County cotton growers in 1926. While most of the effects of the boll weevil infestation were negative, the establishment of a county agent system was beneficial to farmers, then and now.

 
   

Boll Weevil History

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, weevils spread north and east from Texas. As early as 1904, there are records of boll weevil control publications printed by the Alabama Polytechnic Institute’s Agricultural Experiment Station.

The Alabama cotton crop of 1914 produced over 1.7 million bales. The 1914 record still stands as the largest cotton crop ever produced.

1917 was the first year weevils were found statewide. Farmers anticipated the worst. The number of planted acres dropped nearly 1 million acres in comparison to previous years. Cotton bale production declined nearly 70 percent, totaling 515,000 bales.

 

Surviving the Boll Weevils

One of the ways farmers survived the boll weevil invasion was through crop diversification. After their 1915 disaster, a Coffee County producer planted his entire 125-acre farm in peanuts. This venture proved to be a smart move, as weevils devastated cotton again in 1916.

The boll weevil caused a shift in cotton acreage location from southern counties to more northern areas, including the Tennessee Valley and Sand Mountain. These areas experienced colder winters that seemed to have an impact on the survival of adult weevils hibernating through the winter.

 

 

Alabama Extension cotton entomologists have played a vital role in the eradication of the boll weevil. (From right) Dr. Roy Ledbetter is pictured with his predecessor, Dr. Walter Grimes, and the current Extension entomologist, Dr. Ron Smith.

Ledbetter Leads Way for Eradication in Alabama

As eradication plans were devised and implemented in the 1970s, the federal government began efforts to increase educational awareness of the boll weevil and other cotton pests.

"The boll worm complex was a serious issue for Alabama farmers – and for farmers throughout the southern United States who were growing cotton," Ledbetter said. "The devastation of cotton crops brought about an intense focus, as cotton crops continued to suffer at the hand of the boll worm complex."

Leaving his post in Alabama, Ledbetter headed north and spent part of 1971 in Washington, developing the procedure for the distribution of funds to cotton-producing states.

ACES received over $150,000 in earmarked federal money yearly from 1976 to 2007 as a result of Ledbetter’s efforts. Awarded monies funded and facilitated the hiring of regional entomologists and over 200 college-aged cotton scouts.

Ledbetter said he and his colleagues trained veterinary students, agronomy students, and farmers’ sons and daughters – in addition to farmers and industry personnel – to inspect fields and assess damage on a weekly basis.

"We began the scouting program in counties with strong cotton programs," Ledbetter explained. "Training scouts helped farmers greatly. Students were paid $1 per acre, and scouted 1,200 to 2,000 acres each."

While the program was likely a welcome addition for college students, Ledbetter said the most important aspect was the bit of relief consistent scouting was able to provide in Alabama cotton fields.

 

Ledbetter Focused on Others

As Ledbetter reflected, he remembered the satisfaction that came as a result of helping others succeed.

"The ability to hire young men and women to work in a pest management program made a difference in the lives of the students, as well as the cotton farmers," he recalled. "The ongoing scouting and working with farmers allowed me to focus on helping both our growers and the young people."

Scouting enabled farmers to cut down on chemical applications – saving money and bringing about a conscientiousness toward environmental surroundings. At the same time, the money farmers spent on scouting allowed students to complete their degrees.

 

Extension – a Noble Vocation

The eradication of boll weevils brought about major changes in cotton insect management and control in Alabama. The pest’s profound impact on agricultural practices was mostly negative. However, some of the lasting impacts have been positive for Alabama growers. Some of these impacts include diversification of row crop operations, the development of the ACES county agent system, advancements in insect control technology and equipment – including insecticide development and integrated pest management – and the agricultural scouting and private consulting industry.

Like many others with similar professions, Ledbetter enjoyed devoting his life’s work to the success of Alabama’s farmers.

"The ability to make a difference in the lives of Alabama growers was a driving force behind our cotton scouting programs and other agricultural programs," Ledbetter stated. "The people who I served made our work worth it. Extension is a noble vocation."

 

Katie Nichols is in Communications and Marketing with Alabama Cooperative Extension System.