Perry Wears Egg

Agriculture Commissioner Takes It on the Chin

by Robert Bryce

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry doesn't have an egg on his face. It's more like a large omelette, complete with cheese, onions -- and since it involves Perry -- lots of ham. The reason for Perry's embarrassment, though, doesn't include dairy products. Instead, it's cotton. As a vocal supporter of the Texas Boll Weevil Eradication Foundation (TBWEF), Perry has been one of the primary defenders of a program that was the likely culprit for one of Texas' worst agricultural disasters.

Texas cotton farmers will lose more than $200 million this year due to an infestation of the beet armyworm. And many farmers and scientists believe the disaster was man-made, caused by TBWEF's overzealous application of a pesticide called malathion.

In an effort to eradicate the boll weevil -- a destructive cotton pest -- from 500,000 acres of Texas cotton fields, TBWEF sprayed some farms more than a dozen times with malathion. In the areas treated with the pesticide, boll weevil populations fell dramatically. However, infestations of the beet armyworm -- another destructive cotton pest -- were widespread and catastrophic. The cotton harvest in the Rio Grande Valley was a tenth of the expected yield. In the area around San Angelo, farmers lost more than half their crop.

"They killed all the beneficial insects," says Earnest Gesch, a 64-year-old farmer whose fields were sprayed with malathion. Gesch said the malathion applications killed the parasites that keep the armyworms in check, as well as all the wasps that used to inhabit his barn. Gesch expects to lose $100,000 on the 480 acres of cotton he planted near Eola. "If you've got plenty of beneficials, then the armyworms aren't going to take over," he says.

The armyworm disaster has been particularly embarrassing for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provided a quarter of TBWEF's $15 million budget. On September 18, two USDA entomologists, K.R. Summy and J.R. Raulston of the agency's Weslaco research station, released a report which concluded that the malathion doses were "the primary causal factor for the beet armyworm outbreak." Comparing damage on cotton fields north of the Rio Grande with those in Mexico which were not sprayed with malathion, the scientists concluded that "In contrast to the crop failure that occurred in Texas, cotton producers in the irrigated region of adjacent Tamaulipas, Mexico enjoyed a near-record `bumper' crop during 1995, despite the fact that many of their fields were located only a few miles south of the Rio Grande." The two scientists are completing a study of the area around San Angelo, and they say their data suggests the malathion spraying was also the culprit in that region.

Rather than admit their agency was at fault, USDA officials in Washington quickly refuted the two scientists' work and pledged to launch a new study to determine the culprit. In the meantime, the USDA has declared a handful of South Texas counties as disaster areas, thus enabling farmers in the area to get low-interest loans. The USDA has also begun distributing more than $60 million in crop insurance claims to Texas cotton growers affected by the beet armyworm invasion. Thus, the USDA is helping to alleviate the effects of a disaster that it helped create. And they can't admit their agency might be responsible because if they did, they wouldn't be able to distribute disaster relief funds or pay crop insurance.

The boll weevil eradication program was supposed to make cotton farmers' lives easier and their farms more profitable. Instead, farmers in the Valley are circulating a petition to end the program. A group of 10 farmers in Plainview has sued the agency to prevent it from spraying their land, claiming that the agency's taxation powers violate the Texas Constitution.

Ralph Hoelscher, an organic farmer near Rowena, was able to keep TBWEF from spraying his cotton field, and he has the best looking cotton in the county. Hoelscher's successful cotton crop has embarrassed TBWEF, and he says the agency is now trying to force him not to plant cotton next year. Hoelscher says he may file a lawsuit against TBWEF.

Of course, Perry is not the only one to blame for the TBWEF disaster. TBWEF itself appears to be the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Frank Myers, the head of TBWEF, has shown an astonishing degree of arrogance toward anyone who questions the program. He denies his agency could have caused the disaster. Instead, he blames low rainfall and a mild winter. "We have a lot of reasons for why it did happen," he said. "There [are] just no answers." And Myers' agency was given protection during the last session of the Texas Legislature by Senate Bill 1196, written by Sen. Bill Sims (D-Paint Rock) and Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), which gave TBWEF governmental immunity from liability.

While farmers wail about their losses, Perry has insisted that the only solution to the problem created by pesticides is to add more pesticides. During visits to the San Angelo area in September, the first criticism Perry made was of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was reluctant to allow farmers to use expensive, experimental chemicals which were supposedly effective at controlling the armyworm. However, even if the chemicals were available, their cost -- at $25 per acre -- was prohibitively expensive for most farmers.

Perry has also blamed Mexico for the disaster. In a letter written in September to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Perry said, "The eradication program cannot be completely successful if the boll weevil problem is not simultaneously addressed in Mexico." But scientists and farmers in the Valley say the problem isn't Mexico, it's the eradication program. They say that the Valley's sub-tropical climate makes it virtually impossible to completely get rid of the pest.

Clearly, the boll weevil eradication effort has been a failure. It is the ultimate example of man trying to conquer nature and failing miserably. But the hubris of TBWEF and Perry apparently knows no bounds. Next year, TBWEF plans to add an additional 1.1 million acres to the eradication effort. And the USDA will again chip in as much as $5 million to help fund the program.

Farmers are worried. And in the Valley, Maurice Lukefahr, a research scientist at Rio Farms, a non-profit agricultural research institution northeast of McAllen, says farmers have no choice but to try to end the program. If they don't, he says, they will face the same problems again next year. "Any way you look at it, this was a man-made disaster," he said.

Bunch Sues

Bill Bunch, indefatigable lawyer for the Save Our Springs Legal Defense Fund (SOSLDF), filed a lawsuit on October 20 against U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt for failing to add the Barton Springs Salamander to the Endangered Species List. The suit, filed in federal district court in Midland, lists SOSLDF and Dr. Mark Kirkpatrick, a UT zoologist, as plaintiffs. No word yet on when the case will be heard.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle