The boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) is a beetle which has an average length of one-quarter inch (6 millimeters). The insect crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas to enter the United States from Mexico in 1892 and reached southeastern Alabama in 1915. It remains the most destructive cotton pest in North America. By the mid 1920s it had entered all cotton growing regions in the U.S.
On December 11, 1919, the citizens of Enterprise, Alabama erected a monument to the boll weevil, the pest that devastated their fields but forced residents to end their dependence on cotton and to pursue mixed farming and manufacturing.
The infestation led to the introduction of the peanut – an alternative crop popularized by the Tuskegee Institute’s George Washington Carver. Peanut cultivation not only returned vital nutrients to soils depleted by cotton cultivation, but also proved a successful cash crop for local farmers.
By mid-1921, the boll weevil had entered South Carolina. In a 1939 interview for the Federal Writers’ Project, South Carolina native Mose Austin recalled that his employer was adamant “He don’t want nothin’ but cotton planted on de place; dat he in debt and hafter raise cotton to git de money to pay wid.” Austin let out a long guffaw before recounting, “De boll weevil come…and, bless yo’ life, dat bug sho’ romped on things dat fall.” Austin remembered that the following spring, his employer insisted on planting cotton in spite of warnings from his wife, his employees, and government agricultural experts:
De cotton come up and started to growin’, and, suh, befo’ de middle of May I looks down one day and sees de boll weevil settin’ up dere in de top of dem little cotton stalks waitin’ for de squares to fo’m. So all dat gewano us hauled and put down in 1922 made nuttin’ but a crop of boll weevils.
“Always Agin It,” Place Chapin, South Carolina, John L. Dove, interviewer, January 24, 1939. American Life Histories, 1936″“1940
The next year, Austin’s employer tried the same ill-fated experiment. Ultimately, the man lost his farm and moved with his disgruntled wife to California.
The boll weevil contributed to the economic woes of Southern farmers during the 1920s–a situation exacerbated by the Great Depression.
Following World War II the development of new pesticides allowed farmers to again grow cotton as an economic crop, but at great expense and environmental risk. In 1978 a test was conducted in North Carolina to determine if it was feasible to eradicate the weevil from the growing areas. Based on the success of this, area wide programs were begun in the 1980s to eradicate them from whole regions. These are based on cooperative effort by all growers together with the assistance of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program has been successful in eradicating weevils from Virginia and the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, south Alabama, California, and Arizona. Efforts are ongoing to eradicate the weevil from the rest of the United States. Continued success is also based on prohibition of unauthorized cotton growing, outside of the program, and constant monitoring for any recurring outbreaks.
Some entomologists believe that the success of the program is based just as much on the predation of the fire ants as on the human eradication efforts.