Grass seed roots
- Mardi Ford
The first grass seed in Union County was planted in 1933 as a one-sixth acre experiment of Meadow Fescue by H.L. Wagner. On his way through the valley in search of greener pastures, Wagner, instead, stayed to create them himself.
The next year, he planted 25 acres of crested wheatgrass seed given to him by a young 4-H member named Clayton Fox. Not only did Wagner plant it by hand, but he cultivated, weeded and cleared the off-types by hand, as well.
By 1935, a few more farmers tried grass seed, but Wagner was the only one to plant his in 36-inch-wide rows, rather than using the broadcast method. He hoped for easier cultivation and cleaner seed. It paid off. The intensive labor using push planters he designed himself garnered not only higher yields, but a better quality seed.
And although he hadn't done it to make history, that year marked the first time commercial grass seed was grown in rows anywhere in the United States.
By the end of the 1930s, growing grass seed in rows was the standard.
A decade later, more than 13,000 acres of Union County agricultural land was devoted to grass seed production. And with the onset of increased irrigation during the 1960s, even more acreage was converted to grass seed production.
In the past 40 years there has been a greater diversity to move into other crops like peppermint, but the numbers of acres in grass seed production has remainedstable. In 2006, 11,000 acres were planted in grass seed Â— 55 percent of that in Kentucky Blue grass.
One of the most challenging issues in the development of the industry in Union County has been how the post-harvest residue of straw and stubble is dealt with.
For centuries Native Americans burned the valley floor, as well as the forest floor, in order to kill weeds, regenerate the soil and ensure future forage for game and livestock. But it wasn't until the 1950s that field burning began to be used as an extensive tool by grass seed producers for the same purposes of seed regeneration and sterilization.
Early on grass hay was gathered at the end of the fields for threshing, so the stacks were just set on fire. The burning of residue left in the field came about in the late 1950s as farmers, who knew their Native American history, figured out how to control the fire. When it was reported by the county Extension agent in 1958 that the fields which had been burned clean of residue suffered less infections and had better yields, more farmers began open burning their fields.
In the 1960s there were little restrictions on field burning, other than a courtesy call to the local sheriff's office.
But as the production of grass seed increased, it soon became apparent to growers that some type of monitoring system was needed.
The first system was primitive Â— ratings of either good, fair or poor smoke dispersal were determined by using weather forecasts out of Pendleton, as well as bird's-eye information on upper air temperatures gathered by local pilots like Russell Elmer and Creston Shaw, who flew the valley daily during burn season.
By the late '60s, open field burning was an air quality issue heating up the Willamette Valley. Union County Grass Seed Growers and the Union County Farm Bureau held meetings on the latest in field burning research and restrictions. The upshot was that growers decided to take a proactive stance to monitor themselves.
Working with county commissioners, they put together a voluntary burning program. It was a cutting edge approach in its day and a model for others followed. Over the years, the program has evolved to meet county ordinances and air quality standards set by the state and federal government. Today the county is one of two with a voluntary smoke management program still in place. Jefferson County is the other, says Steve Henderson.
Henderson is the Imbler Rural Fire Protection District fire chief and manages the county's Smoke Management Center. The county has had a contract with the Imbler Rural Fire District to operate the Smoke Management Center since its inception in 1988.
In 1993, the practice of burning stubble with propane began with 360 acres burned. There were 6,264 acres open burned that year.
There is far less open burning today as farmers have shifted to the less intensive smoke-producing practice of propane burning stubble after baling and removing the straw.
In 2006, 6,318 acres were burned using the propane method, while 1,470 acres were open burned. Henderson says there will be even less open burning this year, partly because there is a market for some varieties of the baled straw. Higher costs of alfalfa hay have livestock owners looking for alternatives to supplement their feeding programs. Grass seed growers are hoping sale of the straw will offset the higher cost of propane this year.
The amount of residue being removed before propaning is significant. One grower, Curt Ricker baled somewhere between two to three ton per acre of fescue grass straw off just one field. Unfortunately, there is no feed market for fescue straw and Ricker was planning to give it away before he propaned the stubble.
The county's burn program is funded by the grass seed growers through assessing fees on a per acreage basis. Currently, the fee is $2 per acre burned using propane and $6 an acre for an open burn.
Last year, at their own expense, growers installed a second weather station at the Imbler school, in addition to the one at the La Grande airport. Growers hoped to improve weather forecasts prior to burning, and Henderson says it has.
The approximately 10-week program prohibits field burning on holidays, weekends, during the Union County Fair or the Cove Cherry Festival. Last September, growers volunteered not to burn while Cycle Oregon came through the county. In addition, no burns are permitted when the air quality is already compromised by wildfire smoke.
The most recent day when the air quality index for La Grande slipped below the good to moderate level was July 17, as smoke drifted into the valley from the Trout Creek and Cottonwood wildfires. No field burns were authorized that day.
"We meet all EPA and DEQ air quality and emission standards," says Ricker. Burning without permits Â— on any day Â— is a violation of the county ordinance and carries stiff fines and penalties. But Henderson says the majority of growers are so concerned about maintaining a good program, they do a great job of policing each other.
During the agricultural burn season Â— July 15 to Sept. 30 Â— the center operates on a simple "burn" or "no burn" daily status.
Growers must have pre-registered the acres to be burned with the center, including a legal description and map of the field before July 15. Having detailed information when issuing burn permits helps the center determine whether weather patterns in that area of the valley are favorable for smoke dispersal. The center also alerts county emergency services and the Oregon Department of Forestry where each day's burns are conducted.
"It just helps if everybody knows what's going on," Henderson says.
Determining whether it's going to be a burn or no burn day is a time consuming process, Henderson says.
If they think it's going to be a good day, farmers prepare and wait for the go ahead from the center with contact phones in hand. Burns must begin within 30 minutes of permit issue or the permit is invalid.
But before issuing any permits to burn, the center begins at 9 a.m. by checking the National Weather Service forecast from Pendleton.
"This gives us the predicted wind direction and velocity of the (higher) transport winds," Henderson says.
At 10 a.m., the Oregon Department of Agriculture issues its weather forecast from Salem. The ODA report provides a second check on the wind velocity. If the combined forecast looks poor, Henderson sends up a pilot balloon to see the actual dispersal pattern from the ground before making a decision. The flight pattern is tracked, recorded and transmitted into a computer program. Depending on that, Henderson may authorize one field burned as a test fire.
"If a farmer on the list is all ready to go, we'll go ahead and let him start it off on the outer edges and see if the thermal column rises the way we want it to," Henderson explains.
If the smoke from the test fire is within the county's guidelines, permits will be issued. If smoke dispersal from the first test fire are not good, a second one later in the day may occur. Test fires must be set 15 minutes after approval and farmers must maintain radio contact with Henderson.
Henderson says he's never seen a farmer who wasn't a little bit nervous about setting fire to a field. They know there will be backlash from some in the community if things don't go right.
Ricker, who currently serves as president of the county's grass seed grower association, agrees.
"I don't think anybody wants to start a fire in the heat of July and August. But the benefits make it necessary," he says.
Burning not only stimulates the plant to begin the seed cycle, he says, but also helps control weeds, insects and diseases. Because grass seed is a perennial crop, farmers leave it in the field as long as a good crop is still being harvested.
After planting grass seed, the first spring yields no seed for harvest. The first harvest off a new field comes the second year, and then every year after that. Most fields will produce for an average of five years, Ricker says, though he knows of one farmer who has had a grass seed field in production as long as eight years. The erosion-controlling ground cover a grass seed crop provides for that length of time, combined with decreased soil disturbance and carbon release, Ricker says, offset the adversity of a burn. In his mind, fire is not only a natural process in the cycle of life, but an historical one.
"The people who lived here first knew the benefits of fire," Ricker says. "Why do you think they call it the Burnt River?"
Bottom line, Ricker says, is that the results of burning are seen on the ground.
"You get a much lower production of seed in fields that aren't burned," he says.
After all, production is what it's all about Â— farming is a business.
The principle industry for Union County is agriculture Â— with timber, government, education and manufacturing following respectively.
In 2006, more than $57 million was generated in total agricultural sales for Union County. With an uncertain future facing the timber industry, the stability of the county's farming and ranching businesses is a vital component to the county's economic health.
Or as Steven Henderson puts it, "Agriculture floats this county."