The boll weevil, a small grayish-brown beetle dependent on cotton plants for its food and reproduction, first entered the United States from Mexico around 1892. By early 1907 it stood poised to enter Mississippi’s rich farmlands. The pest had already destroyed an estimated four hundred million bales worth of cotton in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, an amount valued at more than $230 million. While the insect had been present in the United States for fifteen years, it had stymied efforts to curb its damage and check its advance. Congress had allocated thousands of dollars for research and farmer education, and the infested states had built up their agriculture departments and land-grant colleges in hopes of finding a solution. Though the boll weevil caused significant damage elsewhere, no state depended on cotton the way Mississippi did.
During its first year in Mississippi the weevil destroyed less than 1 percent of the state’s cotton, but by 1913 it was present throughout the state and destroyed more than a third of the crop. In the decade that followed, the average crop loss caused by the weevil was 26 percent—substantial but not enough to convince farmers to halt all cotton production in the state. In fact, farmers in the Delta were happy to discover that the productive power of the region’s soil allowed their crops to ripen and be picked by late fall, when weevil populations were highest, thus limiting the pest’s damage. In other areas of the state, however, farmers fought the boll weevil on less productive land and with already slim profit margins. State and federal extension agents and researchers at Mississippi A & M (now Mississippi State University) had developed some basic battle strategies that included planting specific seed varieties, clearing brush from the edges of fields, and applying pesticides at various times during the growing season. Many Mississippi farmers balked at these complicated and costly instructions.
Even prior to the weevil’s arrival in the state, Mississippi musicians and artists had begun to depict it in their songs and stories. Charley Patton, a blues progenitor, first learned to play guitar the same year that the weevil arrived at the Dockery Plantation, where he lived. His “Mississippi Boweavil Blues” was the first commercially recorded song about the bug. Other musicians followed suit, producing hundreds of variations of boll weevil songs in the blues, country, and folk genres. In many versions, the weevil is presented as a kind of trickster, a character who fools with landowners and delights sharecroppers. In reality, however, the pest hurt those at the bottom of the agricultural labor system more profoundly than those at the top. When landowners wanted to spread poison on their cotton to fight the weevil, for example, they passed this cost along to the laborers, for whom the debt became another escalating number on the record books at the country store.
Following World War II, technical developments in airplanes and synthetic chemical pesticides made fighting the pest easier but more costly. Crop dusters could be hired to spread the poisons—first calcium arsenate and later DDT and malathion—if the farmer could afford it. By the 1950s mechanized planters and harvesters enabled farmers to more closely control the timing of cotton planting, which limited weevil damage. Seed research conducted at both Mississippi State University’s research farms and private businesses like the Delta and Pine Land Company resulted in fast-maturing cotton varieties that allowed farmers to limit the amount of time the crop spent in the field with the weevils. These advances curbed the extent of boll weevil damage but also made it increasingly difficult for small farmers in the state to keep up with the technology and costs of successfully battling the insect.
In the 1980s and 1990s researchers at Mississippi State perfected a weevil trap that worked by using a synthetic pheromone to attract the bugs and snare them in containers. These bright green traps soon appeared on sticks at the edges of cotton fields throughout the South. This invention allowed farmers and extension agents to monitor weevil populations and target pesticide applications to places that had demonstrated an outbreak. In 1978 an effort to eradicate the boll weevil from the South using this method began in North Carolina and slowly spread west across the region. Mississippi farmers rallied behind the cry “Boll Weevil Free by 2003,” and the state essentially met that goal. Though the weevil has not been completely eradicated, it no longer poses the major threat that it did for almost a century.
- Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (1985)
- James C. Giesen, Boll Weevil Blues: Cotton, Myth, and Power in the American South (2011)
- Robert Higgs, Agricultural History (April 1976)
- Kathryn McKee, “Sherwood Bonner and the Postbellum Legacy of Southwestern Humor,” in Beyond Southern Frontier Humor: Prospects and Possibilities, ed. Piacentino (2013)