Stung by last year’s crop disaster, Valley farmers are asking: Is agriculture commissioner Rick Perry out of his cotton-pickin’ mind?
“THIS ISN’T ABOUT RICK PERRY, pesticides, and cotton,” Rick Perry was telling me. “It’s about Perry, pesticides, and politics.” The commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture and one of the brightest stars in the state GOP was referring to himself in the third person, and no wonder. The topic at hand was the Rio Grande Valley’s horrible 1995 cotton harvest—one of the worst crop disasters in the area’s history and certainly the touchiest issue to surface during Perry’s two terms in office. Better to keep a healthy distance.
It was mid-November, and across Texas everyone wanted to know whether the summer’s harvest was ruined by a boll weevil eradication program that the Valley had participated in at Perry’s urging. Last year, eyeing similar, successful programs in Arizona, North and South Carolina, and Virginia, Valley cotton farmers voted to assess themselves $12 to $18 an acre so they could pay the nonprofit Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation to aggressively monitor and trap boll weevils and spray 250,000 gallons of the pesticide malathion. Over five years, the investment was supposed to translate into increased crop yields, lower production costs, and a reduction in the use of other chemicals on crop land. With cotton prices fetching a post—Civil War high of almost a dollar a pound and with 360,000 Valley acres committed to cotton, it seemed like the right thing to do. “The bottom line was that it would make us more money,” recalls Sebastian gin operator and landowner Tommy Funk, Sr.
In fact, what Valley cotton farmers got was about one ninth the projected number of bales—a measly 54,000 rather than 450,000. Depending on whom you talk to, the malathion did or did not eliminate the boll weevil in the middle of the April-to-August growing season, but it clearly killed beneficial insects that eat the dreaded aphids, which descended on the crops in April, and beet armyworms, which arrived three weeks after the aphids and commenced a feeding frenzy. All told, more than $140 million in cotton was lost, and newly impoverished Valley growers owe the boll weevil foundation $9 million that they cannot pay.
That would be bad enough, but now there is the finger pointing. No one disagrees that an abnormally mild winter and the severe drought that gripped the Valley contributed to the crop loss. Many farmers and eradication program officials also slam the Environmental Protection Agency for waiting too long to approve experimental chemicals that could have been used to kill the aphids and beet armyworms. But just as many farmers, along with several Valley entomologists, lay the blame at the feet of the eradication program—and they hope to pass a referendum this month that would end it immediately. “They came in here and sold us a bill of goods,” says Lamar Smith, who farms four thousand acres near Harlingen and Rio Hondo. “They kept telling us to trust them, that they knew what they were doing. Well, I made nine hundred and forty pounds of cotton per acre in 1994 through integrated pest management. Last year I made next to nothing.”
Predictably, Perry has been burned by the blame game, even though, as he notes, his department has no oversight of the program other than collecting assessments from the cotton producers. He thinks political posturing has fanned the flames, with the chief culprit being Texas comptroller John Sharp, his classmate at Texas A&M and—not coincidentally—his likely Democratic opponent in a future U.S. Senate or Texas governor’s race. In September Sharp published a report detailing $203 million in crop losses in the Valley and the Southern Rolling Plains near San Angelo, where the boll weevil eradication program was also in place.
Perry: “If my old bud John Sharp hadn’t gone down to the Valley and gotten with [state Democratic party executive director] Ed Martin, this story never would have made it out of the agricultural world.”
Sharp: “The report doesn’t even mention his name. It’s the same kind of report we do on anything that affects the Texas economy. It’s my job. I guess he’s catching enough flak to react the way he has. Instead of bad-mouthing people analyzing the situation, he should be spending his time finding out what really happened.”
Perry: “We had a disaster in the Valley. It wasn’t anything that Rick Perry instigated. In the last four or five years, cotton growers in the High Plains lost as much as Valley farmers did this year due to hail and wind. Sharp’s gonna have a hard time blaming me for that. He wouldn’t know a cotton boll from the Cotton Bowl.”
Sharp: “I was planting cotton when the biggest piece of machinery he was working on back in Haskell was his sister’s Schwinn bicycle.”
Soundbites aside, Perry attributes the disaster to “maybe a once-in-a-lifetime set of circumstances—drought, heavy rains, nobody really knows,” although he concedes that the eradication program may have played a minor role. “They should have started spraying in the fall,” he says, because that’s when weevils go into their dormant stage. Still, he and a handful of growers think that ending the program now would be a disaster in itself; considering the success of similar programs elsewhere, they say, the competitive pressures are such that the Valley can’t afford not to be part of an eradication effort. “I think the foundation had a real wake-up call,” says Funk. “They looked at this program as a cookie cutter and didn’t structure it for this area. I’m convinced that if they do what they say they’re gonna do, we can salvage it. It’s going to help us stay in the cotton business a lot longer.”
Not so, say critics of the eradication program, who question the basic principle on which it is based. Valley entomologist John Boling, a consultant to several area cotton producers, doubts whether the boll weevil can ever be eliminated in a subtropical climate like the Valley’s. “You don’t eradicate a pest through non-judicious use of pesticides,” he says. “You create more problems than you solve.” Then there is the matter of Mexico, whose growers near the Rio Grande did not participate in any spraying program but still harvested a half-decent cotton crop last year.
No matter who’s right, the growing season begins in three months, and something has to give. Perry points to newly implemented changes to the Valley program, including improved communication between growers and the boll weevil foundation and a spraying moratorium from May 1 to June 15, when the population of beneficial insects builds up. And EPA administrators have agreed to make it easier to use the restricted chemicals necessary to combat armyworms and other cotton pests. Of course, this month’s referendum could end the program anyway—an unfortunate outcome as far as Perry is concerned, but politics notwithstanding, one he’s prepared to deal with. “The growers know where my heart is,” he says. “But I want to do right by them. I’m going to support any decision they make.”