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Published September 02, 2010, 09:03 AM

Field burning limits come at tough time

SALEM, Ore. — It has been a year since the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 528, significantly reducing the number of acres that grass seed growers in the Willamette Valley can burn.

By: Denise Ruttan, Statesman Journal

SALEM, Ore. — It has been a year since the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 528, significantly reducing the number of acres that grass seed growers in the Willamette Valley can burn.

Now that it’s burning season again, the longtime agricultural practice is back in the spotlight for rural residents facing another hot summer and for grass-seed growers struggling in tough times.

Oregon grass-seed growers were able to burn 65,000 acres total until 2009, said John Byers, the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Smoke Management program.

“The legislation said we can burn henceforth up to 15,000 acres in the North Willamette Valley, but essentially that’s the Silverton hills and some portions of east Linn County,” Byers said. “Growers cannot burn any acreage in most of Linn County, Lane County or Benton County, except for 2,000 acres of emergency burning.”

Growers who cultivate certain identified species, primarily fine fescues, and on highly erodible soils can still burn, but only fewer than 15,000 acres.

“Part of the problem has been and one of the reasons the Legislature retained the ability of some grass seed varieties to be burned in parts of the valley is there’s not much that can grow on that soil that’s economically viable,” Byers said.

For growers, the deeper restrictions come at a tough time for a crop that’s linked to the rises and tumbles of the housing market.

“It’s a double-edged sword, with the economy and the restrictions in field burning,” Sublimity grass- seed grower Derek Schumacher said.

Farmers must shorten crop rotations and work the fields more when they can’t burn, Schumacher said. What he can’t burn, he bales or takes out.

Schumacher has been considering growing canola to take advantage of the burgeoning biofuels market, but he is waiting for the OK to grow a crop that could lead to cross-pollination.

Schumacher says burning is “organic farming.”

“It reduces pests, recycles nutrients and reduces the use of pesticides,” he said.

John Beitel, who has grown grass seed in Stayton and Sublimity on the same farm since 1974, said fine fescues are so valuable for this area because they have a deeper root system and longer rotation than other crops, so they’re most suitable for steep slopes.

“You can grow wheat and ryegrass on a short-term basis. Some guys grow crimson clover. But it’s not a long-term answer,” Beitel said.

Zach Taylor of Taylor Farms in the Silverton hills said they can burn about 80 percent of their grass seed.

“The other 20 percent, we have to make a management decision of how we are going to treat the ground,” Taylor said. “With fine fescues, there’s no nutrient value in the straw, so it doesn’t do any good to feed it to cows. The yield goes down for this long-term, perennial crop.”

On the highly erodible slopes at Taylor Farms, not much else can grow profitably. They planted 70 acres of wheat last year for the first time in 30 years. This year they planted 140 acres of wheat.

“We have a glut of grass seed right now because of the economy. Prices are recessed as well. You have a certain number of acres and you have to decide what to do with them,” Taylor said.

Many rural residents who live around the grass- seed farms of the Silverton hills are torn between supporting the area’s farming community and concerns about their health.

Stephanie Jorgensen of Stayton spoke in support of the burn ban legislation last year. This year, she’s keeping her two children inside on burn days when the smoke gets bad.

“It is disappointing that we continue to be inflicted with poor air quality due to field burning,” Jorgensen said. “On burn days, it is important to maintain a low activity level for children and as the air quality worsens bring children indoors.”

Field burning smoke contains pollutants that have the potential to cause health problems, depending on the level and duration of exposure, according to the Department of Environmental Quality. For the general public, short-term exposure to smoke may result in eye irritation, scratchy throat, runny nose, headaches and allergic reactions.

Holly Higgins of Harrisburg is a strong advocate of banning field burning for health reasons. In the past, she lived in an area that experienced a lot of smoke. But this year there was no burning allowed in the South Willamette Valley.

Higgins said people don’t realize the effect of fine particulates in smoke.

“It took a long time for people to understand the health impacts of cigarette smoking and inhaling secondhand smoke,” Higgins said. “To me that’s where we are with field burning.”

It’s a debate too laden with emotions and politics, Higgins said.

“Our farmers are working hard and taking care of the land, taking care of their families,” Higgins said. “But what happens to a society when a legacy agricultural practice causes people irreparable harm?”