March 23, 2001 11:00 pm

Editors note: In an effort to understand the issues behind field burning and smoke management in the Grande Ronde Valley from an agriculture perspective, an Observer reporter recently talked to two growers, Dale Case and Sam Royes, along with county commissioner John Howard and OSU Extension agent Darrin Walenta. What follows isnt an effort to report on every perspective of the issue, but to understand why growers see the need to continue to burn their fields.

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

People need to realize these are farm family businesses, Dale Case, manager and owner of one of the Grande Ronde Valleys smaller growing operations, says as he tries to explain the pressures facing growers.

You take away (their ability to make a profit), and these families will go out of the community.

Sam Royes feels the same way.

Grass seed, for my family, is one of the few crops we can add value to here, says Royes, who is part of a larger family farming operation based between La Grande and Summerville. The seed from the Royes nearly 1,000 acres of Kentucky bluegrass, he explained, can be cleaned and processed here in the valley, creating jobs and helping producers determine the best prices for the crop, rather than having some distant location handle the preparation for market.

Other crops, Royes says, just go over the hill. Grass seed has some year-round jobs that stay here.

Case and Royes are two producers who have spent months meeting with local government, concerned citizens, representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies, and producers to try to work out a smoke management policy equitable to all concerned from non-farm valley residents who object to breathing smoke from burning fields, to growers who use burning for cost control, yield benefits and disease and pest control.

The struggle isnt new, as Union Countys ordinance controlling and managing field burning, passed in 1991 and amended in 1992, attests.

But heavy smoke days in 2000, brought about by a combination of field burning, forest fires and slash burns in the surrounding mountains, returned the issue to the forefront of community awareness.

The terms field burning and smoke management are themselves catch-alls for a variety of different processes, Royes and Case, along with county Commissioner John Howard and OSU Extension agent Darrin Walenta, recently explained.

Two types of crops are the focus of field burning in the valley. Wheat stubble is often burned to remove residue and to help control certain cereal crop diseases and rodent pests. Grass seed fields are burned to clear residue in a manner that many growers find, if timed right, increases the next seasons seed yield.

And there are different types of field burning.

Open burning tends to be the most visible because more post-harvest residue is still on the fields. Higher, hotter flames move across a field, generating plumes of smoke from the fuel load.

Propane burning is a method involving a tractor pulling equipment that ignites a low-burning propane fire over the fields. The flames are smaller, dont burn as hot and generally put out less smoke because much of the straw has already been removed.

Additionally, the flames and smoke from either type of field burning are dependent on weather conditions and how much of the fuel load the crop residue after the harvest the individual grower has removed before burning.

What makes field burning, smoke management and agricultural burning in general so difficult, says Walenta, the Extension agent, is that no two areas are exactly alike.

Looking at how the Willamette Valley or Washington State has dealt with field burning isnt the same as making decisions for the Grande Ronde Valley, he says.

We have a unique valley here for Kentucky bluegrass, Walenta says. Both the bluegrass and the other popular grass seed crop, fine fescue, do extremely well in the colder climate of the Grande Ronde Valley.

Both types of grass crop need to have the fields cleaned after the harvest. Cleaning can be accomplished by baling the straw, flailing the remaining residue, raking the residue and then burning or vacuuming the field.

Cost effectiveness, land owner preference, crop markets and soil conditions may determine whether a grower burns or not.

Each trip across a harvested field, be it wheat or grass seed, means financial effects on the grower in terms of fuel expenditures, wear and tear on the tractor, wear on the equipment being pulled, and the equipment operators time.

Baling the straw means either the grower must have some use for it, or there must be a market for it to cover the cost of the baling and hauling from the field.

And burning the field can have an effect on the soil moisture and the ability of the soil to maintain moisture or be dry enough to replant. Burning a no-till field may help control diseases and pests while no-till practices help control erosion and cut down on blowing dust.

Field burning, says Royes, is an agronomist issue, somewhere between the science and art of agriculture and the realities of economic decisions.

Economics also plays a role through field fires destroying unwanted weed starts.

Many valley fields produce certified crops crops that are without different seeds or pieces of other growing materials in the harvest.

That certification of a field can mean a huge difference in what a grower can get for a crop.

One noxious weed plant in an acre of grass seed such as quack grass, Canadian thistle or field bind weed can cause the field to loose its certification since the weeds are prohibited in certified seed.

And a wheat crop from a certified field can be worth up to $2 more per bushel than that from an uncertified field.

In a wheat field, the problem might also be jointed goat grass, a near relative of wheat but a plant that doesnt qualify for flour-making.

Wheat sent to market mixed with goat grass can cost the producer a dockage fee meaning less money for each bushel of wheat. Dockage fees have risen steeply in the past five years, Walenta said.

One of the more effective methods to manage jointed goat grass infestations is to rotate out of winter wheat production and plant a spring crop for three or more years, Walenta says. That can have long-lasting economic impact, since springs crops do not have the yield potential here of winter crops.

Certification also keeps the value of valley Kentucky bluegrass seed up.

Theres practically none grown in the Willamette Valley, Royes says. They cant control the weed factor.

And we get higher yields.

The only comparable way to clean field residue without burning is a vacuum process.

Hes tried it, but says the bottom line is money.

Eight years ago, Royes bought a used vacuum and tried it for three or four years. A new vacuum, he estimates, costs about $40,000 for a 40-foot model. A heavy tractor is required to pull the vacuum.

I was trying it on 10 to 40 acres, he says. Management-wise, I couldnt keep up with the thing.

The last stages of cleaning the fields, raking the residue and running the vacuum over them, took four days to clean 40 acres.

I run five combines on about 1,000 acres a year, Royes says. He calculates hed need five or six vacuum sweepers to clean the residue, and hed have to find the man-hours to operate the equipment in an effective manner after harvest and before the residue hindered new grass growth.

He shrugs. He cant make the vacuum as cost-effective as burning and he no longer uses the equipment.

Even baling straw after harvest is an economic risk.

Case notes that while Kentucky bluegrass stubble straw can be an animal feed, fescue stubble straw isnt feedable.

Royes doesnt like to bale his bluegrass stubble, feeling he gets a better yield by burning it.

And, Royes adds, he has paid as much as $75 an acre to have someone come in and bale grass stubble yet another cost that must be calculated into the production of grass seed.

The percentage of wheat stubble burned here is much smaller than that of grass seed, Royes says, in part because fewer acres are planted and in part because wheat fields may be rotated to other crops more often.

With grass, he says, you may have a three- or four-year plan, and fire is part of that long-range plan.

Burning a wheat stubble field might help retain moisture in the soil and improve the soil bed for a grass seed crop.

A lot has to do with moisture, Royes says. If its a wet fall, you may burn more acres to be able to get a crop in.

Case sees burning as the most effective method.

Dealing with diseases and weeds (with fire) is documentable, Case says, pulling out a number of scientific studies, including some from the Grande Ronde Valley. In fact, he says the original Indians living in the region used fire to influence grazing growth.

One proposal for dealing with field burning smoke that is on the table was presented a few weeks ago by the Union County Wheat Growers.

The wheat growers wrote that they will agree to support and work within the Smoke Management Center rules to minimize smoke during the countys management period of July 15 to Sept. 30. They will also support a management system for field burning during the rest of the year based on Umatilla Countys model which started from Union Countys original ordinance. In Umatilla County more than two acres are to be burned only on approved weather days outside the July-to-October period.

The wheat growers also propose a committee to explore alternatives for removing straw residue.

Their proposal calls for Union County to recognize that there are sound and legitimate reasons for stubble burning relating to insect/rodent control, disease control, weed control, and residue management.

The wording, they believe, fits within the 1992 ordinance that states, Whereas, it is recognized that grass seed and cereal grain fields benefit from thermal sanitation (open burning) in order to eliminate certain diseases and pests

The wheat growers ended their proposal with the suggestions that the county establish penalties for burning violations during the Oct. 1 to July 14 period, and that it encourage the EPA to provide per- acre subsidies for direct seeding as it does in Umatilla County.

Producers also point out that they are not alone in producing irritants in the valley.

A chart, now several years old, provided by the EPA showed that pollution was more influenced by dust, motor vehicles, slash burning and wood stoves than by field burning.

Howard, the county commissioner, acknowledges that coordinating all the smoke producers will be hard. But he believes the county program can be successful.

What theyre doing in Umatilla County, we can do it, he says.

While Royes and Case also acknowledge that there is pressure from the EPA to lessen the impact of field smoke, Case adds that weve never had a violation of the EPA standard because of just field burning.

Howard agreed, noting that his reading of the EPAs intent was that theyre supporting the local interests coming together. The EPA is involved in the effort, and supportive.