HARRISBURG, Ore. (AP) — Columns of gray smoke sprang from the fields north of Eugene-Springfield this week — signs that grass seed farmers were working to burn straw off spent fields for the last time as a ban on field burning draws near.
In June, Oregon lawmakers voted to cut in half the acreage farmers could burn this summer and kill the practice entirely for future years.
As of early this week, farmers had burned more than three-fourths of the 20,000-acre final-year allotment, said John Byers, who oversees smoke management for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Farmers typically halt the burn each fall when the heavy rains come, usually in late September or early October, Byers said. But this year, they may have to stop sooner if they run out of the last legal-to-burn acres.
The debate over field burning intensified after a 1988 chain-reaction traffic wreck near Albany that claimed seven lives after a field burn blazed out of control. Constituent complaints and research that tied burning to health problems finally prompted Lane County lawmakers to push for a ban. The state's major medical organizations, including the Oregon Medical Association and PeaceHealth, supported the bill.
Eugene-Springfield often got the worst of it as winds blew the smoke south. This year, however, that populous area has largely been spared.
On Monday, farmers took advantage of a southwest wind, which tossed the smoke up and over the Cascades. As a result, the Lane Regional Air Protection Agency got about 10 complaints from the Marcola area.
Linn County farmers, meanwhile, aren't sure what to do now that the tool of fire is gone. They say field burning is needed to kill pests to help produce the purest grass seed possible.
"People are trying to burn what they can," said Wayne Kizer, a fourth-generation grass seed farmer and president of Harrisburg-based KB Seed Solutions. "A lot of people are sitting here scratching their heads and not knowing what to do" next year.
What's more, he said, "The ban on burning could not have hit the grass seed industry at a worse time."
The economic downturn has hit the grass seed industry doubly hard. The industry's two biggest markets — lawns and pasture for dairy herds — are both down.
The market rate for grass seed is running at about 18 cents a pound, according to Oregon State University. The cost to grow is as much as 26 cents a pound. And the burning ban will mean even higher cots, say some growers. They say they'll have to spend more on labor, gasoline and chemicals to keep weeds at bay and to fertilize the crops.
Kizer predicts some local producers will face bankruptcy in the next six months.
"Grass seed would have been in trouble just from the market standpoint this year," he said. "You add in the ban on burning, and the increased costs that farmers are going to experience, and, for a lot of people, it's going to be the death blow."
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com
(Copyright 2009 The Associated Press)