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Pink bollworm control: greatest environmental story seldom told


Table of Contents:

  • The San Joaquin Valley escapes wrath of world's most destructive cotton pest for four decades thanks to the effort of thousands.

A couple of weeks back my wife and I spent a delightful and reflective evening at a retirement dinner.

The occasion was the retirement of 84-year-old Wally Shropshire of Blythe, Calif., from the California Cotton Pest Control Board. Joining the party was a pair of veteran farmers:  93-year-old Jack Stone of Kings County, Calif., and 76-year-old Richard Johnson of Chowchilla, Calif.

These three men are the last living members of the initial nine men appointed to the California Cotton Pest Control Board. This board is a grower advisory committee established by the California Department of Food and Agriculture 42 years ago to be the cotton farmer’s voice of a then fledgling program to keep the pink bollworm (PBW) out of the San Joaquin Valley.

The leadership of Wally, Jack and Richard and the other six members of that first board and a cast of literally thousands of scientists, administrators, later board members and cotton grower associations achieved what is undoubtedly one of the most significant environmental stewardship programs ever accomplished in U.S. agriculture.

The grower-funded San Joaquin Valley pink bollworm program unquestionably not only saved the San Joaquin Valley cotton industry, but spared the environment literally tons of pesticides that would not only have cost farmers millions of dollars, but could have changed the entire farming system in the San Joaquin Valley.

That is not hyperbole. Just ask Arizona and Southern California farmers. The pink bollworm was largely responsible for wiping out the 150,000-acre Imperial Valley cotton industry. It almost brought the desert cotton industry in Arizona along the California side of the Colorado River to its knees.

Songs are written about and statues erected to the boll weevil. However, by comparison, controlling and eradicating the boll weevil is child’s play compared to the pink bollworm, the most destructive cotton pest in the world. Uncontrolled, PBW moths lay eggs into cotton bolls. Larvae hatch from within and destroy the boll. Controlling PBW requires an array of expensive tools from pesticides, to pheromone monitoring and mating confusion technology and elimination of overwintering hosts. In the past decade, development of biotech cotton has represented a major breakthrough in the PBW battle. It has actually led the U.S. and Mexico to near eradication of the pink bollworm. This is something Arizona cotton growers could not fathom in the mid 1960s when the pink bollworm migrated from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas to the Sonoran Desert.

It quickly became obvious to CDFA and growers that the millions of acres of SJV cotton grown then would not likely survive the pink bollworm. It had to be stopped before it crossed the Southern California desert and established itself in Kern County, the southern most of the six SJV cotton producing counties.

PBW may have migrated west from Texas; however, the Lone Star state also gave us the technology to keep the pinkie out of the San Joaquin. Texas ranchers initiated a screwworm eradication program. You have to be at least 50 years old to understand the devastation caused by the screwworm. It feeds on live flesh and for as long as livestock have roamed the West until it was eradicated in the 1960s, animals had to be inspected and treated for the flesh eating maggots.

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