Saturday, April 20, 2024

Keeping Harmful Insects In Line

Auburn Celebrates 100 Years Of Extension Cotton Entomologists


Mr. Jerry Ruffin, Auburn University’s first full time Extension cotton entomologist hired in 1924, directed educational programs with cotton farmers on how to manage and control the boll weevil.

On Sept. 1, 1924, Mr. Jerry Ruffin was hired by the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, now Auburn University, as the first full time Extension cotton entomologist. Prior to that time, from 1908 to 1924, Dr. Warren E. Hines served as both researcher and Extension for cotton entomology. Ruffin served in his capacity as the Auburn Extension cotton entomologist for the next 36 years, until he retired Jan. 15, 1961. Upon his retirement, Ruffin served the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries as Assistant Commissioner of Agriculture into the mid 1970s.

While Ruffin was serving as Extension cotton entomologist, he traveled the state — wherever cotton was grown — and conducted educational programs with cotton farmers on how to manage and control the boll weevil. Since roads were limited in many rural areas of the state, Ruffin often traveled to many counties by train. Local county agents would meet the train and transport Ruffin out to the cotton farms. When Ruffin returned to campus, he would write a newsletter about his insect observations and experiences, which he titled “Tales of Insects.” These newsletters are currently located in the Archives of the Auburn University library.

Upon Ruffin’s retirement, Dr. Walter Grimes was employed in 1961 as his replacement. Grimes could be listed as the father and originator of the “Cotton Insect Scouting Program.” This program is still ongoing in 2024 and is the longest running continuous Extension educational program in the now Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

The program consisted of training students — primarily college age — to monitor or scout grower’s fields on a weekly basis and provide a written report to each grower on the level of damaging insects present that week. This information was used by growers to make treatment decisions when insects were causing economic damage.

Prior to that time, many growers just applied insecticides for damaging insects (primarily boll weevils) on a four-to-five-day schedule throughout the season. After getting this scouting program established and running, Grimes went on to a distinguished career in the agrichemical industry. He concluded his career as vice president of research with the Chemagro Corp. (now known as Bayer) with headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri.

More Funding Secured

Grimes was followed in 1962 by Dr. Roy J. Ledbetter, who served as Extension cotton entomologist until 1976, at which time he moved into Extension administration as assistant director of Extension for Agriculture and Natural Resources. Ledbetter’s greatest contribution to Extension cotton entomology came from his temporary assignment in 1971 in Washington D.C. During this time, he served as part of a small committee in an advisory capacity to the Under Secretary of Agriculture.

The role of this committee was to devise a national plan on how to use additional funding to better manage cotton insects. This funding was provided cooperatively by two entities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Extension service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The funds were to be made available to each cotton- producing state to employ an additional cotton entomologist.

Ledbetter was the key person who developed the formula for how these funds would be divided among the different states. His formula considered the severity of boll weevil pressure (dollar losses), the historical number of insecticide applications made annually for boll weevil control and the total number of individual cotton growers within each state.

Based on Ledbetter’s formula and his close working relationship with Dr. Ned Bailey, Under Secretary of Agriculture, and Dr. Ray Scott, Associate Secretary of Agriculture, Alabama, was able to receive approximately $150,000 additional dollars each season to support this intensified Extension program. The additional funds continued for more than 30 years and amounted to almost $5 million. Today, this still stands as one of the largest grants of additional fundings in the history of the Alabama Extension Service.

Ramping Up The Program

During the past century, Drs. Ron Smith (left), Walter Grimes and Roy J. Ledbetter have all served as Auburn University entomologists.

The funding also supported the hiring of Dr. Ron Smith on April 4, 1972, to provide leadership for the program. Smith’s career overlapped with Ledbetter for approximately four years. The cotton scouting programs and information on the management of cotton insects were significantly advanced during the decades that followed. Smith provided leadership for the cotton Integrated Pest Management program until his retirement Dec. 31, 2003. During the period from 1964 to 1977, a survey entomologist by the name of Frank McQueen also provided valuable educational support for Alabama Extension cotton IPM.

During Smith’s leadership, scouting schools were expanded to other cotton production regions of the state in addition to the one held annually on campus at Auburn. Weekly insect situation newsletters went out to counties, scout supervisors were employed, two area cotton entomologists were added along with four multi-county agents solely for cotton IPM.

Weekly news articles on cotton IPM were provided to regional and national ag media (more than 500 in the Southeast Farm Press), and 800 phone lines with up-to-date weekly management advice were available during the growing season. In addition, winter educational meetings and in-season turnrow meetings were held in most every cotton- producing county on an annual basis.

Following Smith’s retirement in December 2003, he continued his service to Extension and the Alabama cotton industry on an annual contract basis. These annual contracts, which began in 2004, will be continued through the 2024 season. 2024 will be Smith’s 53rd cotton production season as an Extension entomologist.

Tim Reed also provided leadership for this program from his off-campus location in the Tennessee Valley. Two other area cotton entomologists provided major contributions to this intensified cotton IPM educational program. They were Barry Freeman in the Tennessee Valley and Glen Worley in central and south Alabama from his Selma location.

Foundation For The Future

After Reed’s untimely death, Dr. Scott  Graham, a native of Mississippi, came to the Alabama Cooperation Extension System with an excellent background in cotton IPM. In earning his master’s degree at Mississippi State University and Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, Graham worked under several of the most prominent cotton entomologists of the current generation.

During the past four seasons, he has advanced the Alabama cotton insect management program to new levels of excellence. Graham has developed relationships and respect with and from growers, private consultants, agri-fieldmen, Extension agents and others in every area of the state. He has gained the respect of all and is in position to move this established and long running Extension program to new heights.

Many things have changed regarding cotton insects over the past 100 years that are too numerous to discuss in this article. But rest assured, the Alabama Extension Cotton IPM educational program is positioned to continue to be on top of the cotton insect situation for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Ron Smith is professor emeritus, Auburn University.

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