Editorial: West Virginia can learn from the boll weevil

In the downtown of Enterprise, Alabama, population 37,000, there stands the world’s only known monument to an agricultural pest -- the boll weevil.

The monument was erected in 1919, just a few years after the beetle had migrated from places further south and west and decimated much of Coffee County’s cotton crop, bankrupting many farmers.

City fathers honored the small cotton-eating critter not because it devastated their economy, but because it forced them to diversify and improve their economy.

“In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama,” the inscription reads.

Farmers switched from growing cotton to peanuts, which were unaffected by the pest, and the economy soared.

The city’s website says “the Boll Weevil Monument is a symbol of man’s willingness and ability to adjust to adversity.”

There’s bound to be a lesson for West Virginia in the boll weevil story. The state has long depended -- and with good reason -- on the production and use of coal for much of its economic livelihood.

Yet, while West Virginia shouldn’t give up on the coal industry -- not now, not in the near future, and probably not ever -- the state certainly needs to provide a continuous push to diversify its economy from too much reliance on any one product.

West Virginia’s economy has been diversified before when the manufacture of glass, steel and chemicals produced not only those products, but thousands of good paying jobs and revenue. And state officials have been working to diversify -- Senator Jay Rockefeller’s recruitment of the Toyota manufacturing plant and the state’s push for science and research as examples -- yet state officials and entrepreneurs must never let up.

And while state officials must help, it’s not up to government to choose what types of businesses get spawned, grow and thrive.

State residents must insist on a creative economic environment where new ideas are encouraged, new concepts can grow, and businesses -- small and large, local, national and international -- can thrive through low taxes, reasonable regulation and an inquisitive and accepting marketplace.

No need to design a monument to honor Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, but growing a diverse economy regardless of the outlook for the coal industry will be a nice honor for all West Virginia citizens.

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