(Note: The following is part of a series of articles looking at the history and evolution of agriculture in Georgia and Bulloch County.)
By 1914, more than 5.2 million acres of Georgia farms were planted in cotton. But the cotton crop then experienced a devastating visitor from Central America: the boll weevil.
First discovered in Texas in 1892, by 1915, this pest had traveled more than 1,000 miles to the Georgia border. Discovered in Thomasville in 1915, the devastating effect of the weevil was quickly noticed on cotton production.
The first solution to weevil infestations was the destruction of infected plants, use of early maturing varieties of cotton, a standard row spacing of at least four feet in the fields and the use of fertilizers to help produce an earlier crop.
The first Georgia State Board of Entomology publication on the history of control and biology of the boll weevil was written by Wilmon Newell, Georgia State Entomologist and Secretary of the Board of Entomology.
Newell suggested dusting cotton plants with a formulation of powdered lead arsenate instead of spraying them with liquid insecticides. He created a new powdered form of lead arsenate that was manufactured by the Grasselli Chemical Company.
Newell also suggested several other options for fighting the boll weevil, including defoliating cotton plants in the fall to interrupt the weevil’s life cycle. Newell also reported the first discovery of a known predator of the bug, the carabid beetle.
His final determination was that Georgia farmers needed to diversify, stating that “our trouble since the war has been the craze of our people for cotton production to the exclusion of food crops.”
In addition, the United States Department of Agriculture warned the area’s cotton farmers that “The large growth of the plants and the late maturity of the crop render Sea Island cotton particularly susceptible to injury by the (Boll) Weevil.”
Georgia’s losses of their cotton crop harvests to weevil damage had grown to 45 percent in 1921. The Air Service of the United States War Department used battle-tested pilots to perform aerial spraying of crops.
In 15 years the harvested cotton acreage declined
35 percent, down to under 3 1/2 million acres in 1930. While not as severe as at first, the losses of Georgia’s cotton crop to boll weevils continued.
By 1983, only 115,000 acres of cotton were planted in Georgia. There is a threat of re-infestation even to this day. To combat the threat, the Georgia Department of Agriculture has partnered with the Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation of Georgia, Inc.
Each year, cotton fields are diligently monitored for boll weevils — you may have seen the green plastic traps near fields. If weevils are found, foundation employees respond within 24 hours to install additional traps and apply insecticide treatments if needed.
Even today, Georgia remains a major player in cotton production. Of the 2012 U.S. cotton harvest of 17.3 million 480-pound bales, Georgia produced
2.9 million. Of that, Bulloch County produced 2,000. For the 2013 harvest, the numbers showed the U.S. produced 16.5 million bales, Georgia 2 million, and Bulloch County 66,600 bales.
Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look each week at the area's past. Email Roger at firstname.lastname@example.org.