Abstract: The Impact of the Boll Weevil, 1892-1932

Paul W. Rhode, Fabian Lange, and Alan Olmstead

Abstract

The boll weevil is America's most celebrated agricultural pest. We assemble new county-level panel data on the insect's geographic spread and on farm activity to investigate the weevil's effects on the southern economy between 1892 and 1932. Our study provides sharp estimates of the full time path of the pest's local impacts. We find that instead of diversifying away from cotton in anticipation of the weevil's appearance, farmers attempted to squeeze one last large crop out of their land just prior to contact. Upon arrival, the weevil had a large negative impact on production that required up to five years to be fully manifest and that did not disappear within our study period. Cotton yields fell substantially; acreage declined by less. In response, farmers did not take land out of agricultural use, but instead shifted to other crops. We also find striking effects on land values and population movements, indicating that the pest's spread redistributed economic activity within the South.