A handful of optimistic Kansas senators bugged by a proposal to prevent beetle infestations that could devastate cotton crops bogged down a boll weevil late at night.
The bill, which passed the Senate early Thursday morning after changing the House version, would create a cotton boll weevil monitoring program.
Proponents argued such a program would be a public good to protect the state’s $84 million cotton industry, while opponents argued it would take away individual rights and harm to farm profitability.
They also argued over semantics, arguing that a per-bale charge imposed on farmers is a tax and akin to a levy program on farm produce.
“We have to understand that if the boll weevil gets into our cotton, it will not only devastate this field, it will devastate the cotton industry in Kansas,” said Sen. John Doll, R-Garden City.
In the Senate, Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, compared creating an agenda to communism.
“It’s heavy garbage that gets shoved down people’s throats,” Steffen said. “It’s not on the way to a democracy and a republic. It’s on the way to communism.”
In a GOP caucus, Steffen suggested the bill would sow mistrust among Confederate sympathizers. He called it the government’s overreach via a special interest group pushing for the creation of a new agenda that takes away individual rights.
“We want boll weevils to stay out of the state of Kansas, but we want to do it in a democratic way, not with this heavy-handed approach that’s going to alienate people,” Steffen said. “My area, I have areas full of Confederate flags. Why? It has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with distrust of government.”
Potential catastrophe or alarmism?
Boll weevils are a beetle that feeds on cotton swabs and flowers. Insects are notorious for how an invasion of insects can quickly wipe out a crop.
“I find it interesting that after two years of fighting a losing battle to eradicate a virus, we have the audacity to launch a new program to eradicate another entity,” said Steffen, who has promoted fringe beliefs about COVID-19. “They haven’t eradicated the boll weevil. It’s been a problem for centuries, and we’re assuming here that we have the ability to eradicate Mother Nature again.”
Decades of costly eradication efforts in the United States have largely succeeded. The weevils have been confined to areas of southern Texas near the Mexican border, where the beetles originated. Trapping programs prevented infestations when the insects were discovered further from the border.
Sen. Michael Fagg, R-El Dorado, said the state’s cotton industry “is being proactive with a pesticide problem that we in Kansas don’t understand.”
“Kansas is the only major cotton-growing state that does not have a statutory program that meets the US cotton industry’s minimum trap and spray standards,” he said.
Boll weevils are not in Kansas, nor in 16 of the 17 states that have existing programs. Vigilance is key, say proponents of creating a program in Kansas, because insects could find their way there.
The threat is primarily posed by contract fishermen crossing state lines, necessitated by the boom in production in recent years. The risk remains low because operators in other states are required to certify that their equipment is weevil-free.
“Because boll weevils are hardy, high-producing cotton-growing states must remain vigilant to ensure outbreaks do not occur,” said Sen. Mary Ware, D-Wichita. “It’s a disaster that could happen. This (bill) will prevent it from happening.”
“In fact, this bill is a kind of ‘Henny Penny and the Sky Falls’ bill,” said Sen. Alicia Straub, R-Ellinwood.
Steffen accused his colleagues of “frightening”.
“I don’t see any reason to think fearmongering is going to grow cotton,” he said.
Cotton growth has exceeded the capacity of the voluntary program
House Bill 2559 would establish the Kansas cotton boll weevil program. The board would have the power to establish a cotton pest monitoring plan with the authority to enter private property to inspect fields. If pests were discovered, the council could develop an eradication plan.
The program would be funded by a levy on cotton bales, paid by the producer at the time of deposit at the cotton gin.
“This is a tax without representation,” Straub said, noting that the agriculture secretary and the Kansas Cotton Association would choose members while farmers would have no direct vote.
“Failing to pay that boll weevil tax could land you with a misdemeanor charge,” she said.
Cotton growers already have a small-scale voluntary trapping program in place, but industry officials want the state to make participation mandatory.
This voluntary charge is 50 cents per ball. If the bill becomes law, the levy could reach $2.
“It seems to me that the voluntary program that cotton growers are currently running with a 50-cent voluntary levy submitted to the cotton growers association is working very well,” Straub said. “It looks like we don’t have a boll weevil problem, and why would we have one.”
This is not the case, according to testimony before agriculture committees.
Growth in the state’s cotton industry has exceeded the capacity of the voluntary program, Gary Feist, of the Kansas Cotton Association, testified. The state is unable to meet the minimum standards set by the National Cotton Board due to the increase in acreage.
Cotton has become more attractive in the Wheat State amid drought and water issues. The state’s 2020 crop was worth about $84 million, according to United States Department of Agriculture statistics. That year, the 184,000 acres harvested produced about 300,000 bales, up from 50,000 acres in 2010.
The balls weigh 480 pounds. Current cotton prices are $1.30 per pound. A year ago, the price was $0.82.
At the full levy allowed and at the current price of cotton, a farmer would pay $2 to the prevention program on a bale worth $624. If the prevention program had been in place with the maximum drawdown during the 2020 harvest, his income would have been $600,000.
“The board is going to be sitting there salivating over the money,” said. Senator Dennis Pyle, R-Hiawatha.
Pyle, who is a farmer, noted that while cotton prices are high, so are farm expenses.
“You’re taking the farmer’s wallet away with this,” he said.
Attempt to create an opt-out
Steffen tried to make the program refundable, arguing that “philosophically some farmers won’t want to participate. That’s important from a profitability standpoint.”
A failed Straub Amendment would have made participation in the program voluntary. Producers could opt out, which would exempt them from the provisions of the law while prohibiting them from receiving benefits.
“The most important thing is to have a monitoring program that can monitor all the cotton fields in Kansas, so I would hate to see some of those fields left out,” said Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence.
Ware, the senator from Wichita, argued that farmers opting out of the program would still benefit from the program protecting the state’s cotton crop.
“You’re signing up these farmers to an association that they’re not a member of, that they don’t want to be a member of, for help that they didn’t ask for,” Steffen said.
“We don’t have an emergency with boll weevils attacking us from the south,” he said.
A Senate amendment requires inspectors to notify homeowners. Previously, the bill only required an attempted notification. This change largely assuaged complaints about private property rights.
Straub claimed the bill would “take away their First Amendment freedom of speech and force them into a government levy program.”
If out-of-state fishers are the source of the risk, they should foot the bill for the mitigation program, Straub argued. She also said herbicide drift had been more destructive to cotton fields.
“It would seem to me that in fact the boll weevil is not really the real threat to the cotton crop in Kansas, but the drift of 2,4-D or other herbicides, to which the cotton plant is quite vulnerable. , actually caused more losses of the cotton crop in Kansas,” she said.
Straub said the government should trust farmers to increase their harvests.
“It takes as little as 12 days for a boll weevil egg to reach full maturity and emerge from the plant,” said Fagg, Sen. El Dorado. “It only takes three days after emergence for the boll weevil to reproduce and spread at an alarming rate.”
Senator Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, who is a farmer, chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“Our prevention plan, the whole idea is to prevent an epidemic,” he said. “That’s the point.”