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Serving: Central

Column: Conservation resources going up in smoke?

From the air, a burning rice field is a sight to behold. A column of thick, white smoke mushrooms 300 to 400 feet into the air. The smoke drifts to the west on this bright, sunny day and spreads over a 20-mile area.

As the plane flies west, you can still see wisps of smoke from the burning field 40 to 50 miles away.

Having grown up in rice country, I’ve heard the arguments for burning off rice and wheat fields: It destroys disease pathogens that might overwinter; it removes debris that soaks up moisture and interferes with tillage operations….

I’ve also read conservation tillage studies showing the straw helps prevent wind and water erosion; the decomposing straw adds organic matter to the soil; the straw mat helps conserve moisture….

On this day when it hasn’t rained in the Mid-South for more than a month, the grower had to obtain a permit exempting the field from a no-burn order. While that may seem like more unnecessary red tape, the permit serves a purpose.

Aside from the danger — an uncle died when smoke from a field not far from this one obscured his vision, and his truck ran off the road — the permit requires growers to keep water tanks and trucks on hand to prevent the fire from spreading to neighbors’ fields.

Producers again are under pressure from rising input costs and low crop prices. And while it’s tempting to take the easiest way out — such as burning off a field — others prefer the long-term approach of preserving resources, like crop residue.

Ironically, this plane travels to Arizona and a visit to the farm of Howard Wuertz, who is experimenting with growing cotton behind a wheat cover crop. It seems odd to encounter no-till cotton in the desert, but Wuertz believes the straw is helping improve soil conditions and the drip irrigation technology he has pioneered.

The trip occurs the same week the House is considering a disaster relief bill. It finally passed a measure but not before some ugly debate over who it would cover and how to pay for it.

While the administration-drafted bill provided aid only to farmers injured by hurricanes, Rep. Charlie Stenholm, the Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, was able to expand coverage to other areas. But the added aid came with a price tag: A spending cap for the Conservation Security Program.

“There are no budget offsets for the aid that will go to Florida, but there are offsets for the aid that will go to farmers and ranchers in other parts of the country,” Stenholm said. “The message sent by the House leadership is clear: The folks providing the nation’s food and fiber who happen to live outside politically important Florida are in a separate and lower class.”

As the week’s events unfolded, you couldn’t help but wonder if some in Washington weren’t taking the easy way out on the hard work of conserving the nation’s farming resources.


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