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How the Bugs Finally Won : For 22 Years, the Cotton Farmers of the Imperial Valley Waged Chemical Warfare Against 'Pinkie.' This Summer, They Were Forced to Find Another Way.

September 20, 1987|DAVID DEVOSS | David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

EVERYTHING SEEMED NORMAL in the Imperial Valley's farming communities. But in the fields, millions of pink bollworms were shedding their cocoons . Mutant survivors of more than two decades of chemical warfare, they would emerge from the soil with the arrival of spring. And each month this summer a new generation, larger and more resistant than the last, would swarm over the fields in a reproductive frenzy. As the season wore on, leaf hoppers and lygus, stinkbugs and spider mites would swell the insect army. It was time for cotton farmers to prepare for battle. Fewer than 17,000 acres of cotton remain of the 143,000 planted a decade ago. Only growers with a defensive strategy could expect to survive the onslaught that would come with the night heat of September.

IT WAS 10 MINUTES SHY OF NOON on a Friday in early May but the temperature already was climbing toward 100 when John Benson pulled up to the Stockmen's Club. Whether measured by the acreage he owns or by his girth, "Big John" is one of the largest growers in the valley. Since taking over from his father in 1964, he has nearly doubled the size of the family farm. No amount of hard work, however, seemed to improve his cotton yield. Only 600 acres of cotton remain, and if past experience is any indication that too is in peril.

Benson skirted the hissing sprinklers and strode toward the entrance where Clyde Shields was waiting. In the lexicon of the Imperial Valley, Shields is a "bug man," a free-lance entomologist who advises growers when and what to spray on their crops. The two men have been fighting the pink bollworm for 20 years. Shields has the entire history of the conflict on computer. He can predict the exact day the worms will hit. He knows the kill ratio of every pesticide. His temperature and infestation graphs cover dozens of cotton fields. Unfortunately, all the data indicates that the battle between vertebrates and arthropods is being won by the bugs.

" 'Bout time for pinkie to come out of the ground," Shields said by way of salutation.

"Hell, it's already a zoo out there," Benson scowled, jerking open the door. "By September pinkie will be like the Chinese army in North Korea."

Big John and the bug man strolled past the gallery of mounted steer heads and took a corner table in the dining room. They were midway through their salads when Shields pulled a sawtooth-shaped graph from his pocket. "Look at these infestation projections," he urged. "I think we can keep our loss below 10% if we limit spraying to the temperature peaks. If we spray any more during a long season, we'll have a resistance problem for sure--and risk killing all the beneficials."

Big John momentarily pondered the dilemma. If he didn't spray enough, the pink bollworm would take most of his cotton. Too heavy an application, on the other hand, would further upset the predator balance, leaving the cotton vulnerable to a host of other, equally voracious pests. A former Navy officer and graduate of UCLA Law School, Benson drained his iced tea, then looked directly at Shields.

"I can accept losing my melons to a root fungus, because that's one of the risks in this game," he said, rolling a toothpick to the corner of his mouth. "But I can't stand to lose any crop to a bug. It's just a matter of pride.

"It's the destiny of this valley to grow cotton. I've got plenty of water, some fairly decent soil and all the sunshine in the world. The only thing standing between me and prosperity is the damn pinkie."

"So the strategy is--"

"Scorched earth," snapped Benson, rising from the table. "We zap pinkie now so he can't nail us in July. Fog it in there, Clyde, before every female moth out there becomes the great-grandmother of 400,000 more pinkies."

THE IMPERIAL VALLEY IS ONE of the richest agricultural areas in North America. Though it annually receives less than three inches of rain, irrigation water from the Colorado River allows crops to grow year-round. There are no tule fogs or thunderstorms like those that plague the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. It is a bowl-shaped, 500,000-acre greenhouse filled with fine-textured silt a mile deep in many places.

For more than half a century farmers grew rich growing cotton. Extra months of cultivation meant cotton plants could be picked twice, boosting yields far above those possible elsewhere in California. Even after DDT was banned in 1962, farmers continued to average more than three bales an acre. Then one late summer day in 1965 the pink bollworm floated in from Arizona, and the good times ended.

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