By Laura Odom
It’s a tale as old as time: the farming of a crop supports the economy of a region until importation, human travel, or climate change introduces an invasive pest species that likes to snack on the aforementioned crop. Invasive species are often advantaged in new habitats, as they typically have no natural predators there and native plants have yet to evolve defenses to deter their snacking. Invasive crop pests have a lengthy history of destroying agricultural yields and causing economic crises. Notable culprits in the United States include the San Jose scale, brown marmorated stink bug, and Pennsylvania’s very own public enemy #1, the spotted lanternfly. These pests significantly reduce annual yields of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other crops, in addition to disrupting local ecosystems. The battle against crop pests has no end in sight, but that’s not to say we’ve never experienced success in fighting them. This article is an account of how one pernicious pest was almost entirely conquered by the combined efforts of farmers and scientists of the 20th century.
First, it is necessary to recount the history of agriculture in Alabama (and the entire Southeastern US) because this history is inseparable from the egregious treatment of African people by white colonizers and their descendants. The funding for the statehood and early development of Alabama was generated by the production of cotton, with the high demand for the crop furthering the institution of slavery that resulted in the exploitation and persecution of individuals of the African diaspora. The institution of slavery was pervasive in Alabama from the territorial period of the early 1800s until the emancipation of enslaved people and the abolishment of slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. During this period, the labor, knowledge, and skills that bolstered Alabama’s “king” cotton production were taken from people who did not benefit from its economic successes.
With Alabama’s economy in shambles after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the laborious task of cotton farming was largely thrust upon those same people who had been forced to bear it before: previously enslaved people. Two subsequent labor systems, tenancy and sharecropping, dominated Alabama’s cotton farming. Under tenancy, previously enslaved people became tenant farmers who rented a house and portion of land, keeping the crops they harvested while paying rent to the landowner. Sharecropping was more prevalent in Alabama; under this system, previously enslaved people lived on the farmland and shared a portion of the crops they harvested with the landowner. Under the guise of an agreement between a landowner and tenant/sharecropper, these labor systems heavily disadvantaged newly freed Black individuals and favored white landowners, many of which were previous enslavers. By charging high interest rates on lent land and undermining government assistance interventions, white landowners upheld the cycle of oppression of Black individuals in America. These conventions persisted into the 20th century, and they continued to grow in popularity until the boll weevil entered the scene in 1910.
The boll weevil, Anthonomus grandis, is an unassuming grey-brown beetle measuring up to ¼ inch, complete with a long snout reminiscent of an ant-eater’s (Figure 1). The boll weevil originally feasted on the Hampea genus of plants native to Central Mexico, but in the late 19th century, the weevil crossed the Rio Grande, landing itself in southern Texas. In the following years, the boll weevil infested every cotton-producing state in the US, particularly devastating the previously injured economy of Alabama. By 1916, cotton yield by acre in the state had already dropped from the usual 155 pounds to only 95 pounds. The impacts of the boll weevil infestation on cotton farming by tenant farmers and sharecroppers were also believed to have played a major role in the Great Migration, the mass exodus of African American people from southern to northern US states between 1910-1970.
In the 1910s and 1920s, the boll weevil was wreaking havoc on the country, and farmers, scientists, and government officials alike were forced to take action. What resulted was one of the world’s first enforcements of integrated pest management (IPM). IPM is the practice of combining chemical and non-chemical pest control techniques to reduce a pest population below the economic injury level (EIL), which is the population density of a pest species that will result in economic damages for affected crops. Pest management methods implemented to fight the boll weevil infestation included treatment with pesticides like malathion, pheromone traps, and the shredding of cotton stalks in the winter to reduce the weevils’ access to overwinter shelter. Over the next century, the practice of IPM proved to be quite successful, and the boll weevil has been classified as eradicated in all cotton-growing states except one region of the Texas-Mexico border called the Boll Weevil Buffer Zone. The Boll Weevil Eradication Program also saw the development of new generations of pesticides produced by the combined efforts of chemists, entomologists, agriculturalists, and farmers. One driver of these advancements was the need for less frequent crop spraying in order to minimize adverse effects on the resident flora, fauna, and people. Additionally, the practices of crop rotation and replacement had a monumental impact on ensuring the future of agriculture in Alabama.
In 1916, a banker and cotton merchant named H.M. Sessions from Coffee County, Alabama (Figure 2), traveled to Virginia and North Carolina in search of cotton alternatives, and came back an outspoken advocate of peanut farming. Sessions convinced an indebted farmer, C.W. Baston, to solely plant peanuts for one season, and the yield from that one season allowed Baston to completely pay his debts and retain a profit. Concurrently, George Washington Carver, a prolific Black agricultural scientist at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was gaining nationwide acknowledgment for his research on the utility of peanut products. Additionally, peanut butter was gaining popularity among American consumers as a result of its debut at the World’s Fair in 1904.
Coffee County farmers rapidly converted their cotton fields to peanut crops, and within just a few seasons saw a peanut-induced economic boom that quickly translated to neighboring counties. One such county is Houston County (Figure 2), which contains my hometown, Dothan. As the self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World,” Dothan and the surrounding counties produce more than 65% of peanuts in the US. The prosperity brought about by the legume leads Dothanites and residents of neighboring counties (and states) to gather around the end of October every year for the National Peanut Festival. The first Nut Fest, held in 1938, was even patronized by George Washington Carver himself. Today, the event spans 10 days and welcomes over 160,000 visitors who come for the carnival rides, livestock exhibits, vendors selling a variety of wares, and my personal favorite: the food. These delicacies include corndogs from the Corndog Man (certainly a no-nonsense name), boiled peanuts, roasted corn on the cob, and Kettle Korn. Besides the pandemic, my time here in Pennsylvania has been some of the only years of my life that I haven’t attended the Nut Fest, and around the end of October, I may even get a little homesick (shhh).
It makes sense that the peanut would be highly celebrated for the renewed economic prosperity it brought to the regions of its growth, but a Coffee County businessman named Roscoe Fleming took it a step further and in 1919, he supplied $1800 for the creation of the Boll Weevil Monument in downtown Enterprise, AL. The 13-foot-tall statue features a robed female figure holding overhead a boll weevil perched atop a pedestal (Figure 3). An inscription at the site of the monument exalts the boll weevil as the “herald of prosperity” for its role in forcing local farmers to adapt and ultimately prosper from their efforts. The story of the boll weevil is one of overcoming hardship through scientific ingenuity and collaboration, so when your experiments or other projects aren’t going as planned (and when do they??), just remember that fortune favors the bold and creative, and that combining your expertise with that of others can unveil new solutions previously unimagined.
- Alabama’s economy was primarily bolstered by cotton agriculture until the early 20th century, its farming largely upheld by the nefarious practices of slavery
- In the 20th century, the boll weevil invaded and continuously destroyed US cotton farms
- Integrated pest management and peanut farming restored Alabama’s agricultural economy
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