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Willamette Valley Field Burning Now UnderwayWillamette Valley Field Burning Now Underway

Grass seed field fires only a small amount of what once was burned.

August 5, 2014

5 Min Read

A relatively early harvest of grass seed this summer has led to an accelerated start of the Willamette Valley field burning season. But once again, with a permanent ban in place for the south valley, the amount of acreage going up in smoke this year will be a fraction of what it once was. Grass seed growers who can no longer use fire to clean the fields continue working hard to find alternatives with some, but not total success.

"Historically, we begin field burning in the middle of August, but we have already been able to burn several hundred acres earlier than usual," says John Byers, manager of the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Smoke Management Program. "There is a common misconception that field burning has been completely eliminated. That isn't true. There are still some areas of the Willamette Valley that need to burn and are authorized to do so."

For years, grass seed growers relied on the practice of field burning to eliminate straw residues and rid fields of weeds, insects, and diseases. At one time, nearly a quarter-million acres in the Willamette Valley went up in smoke. The Oregon Legislature phased down the amount of acres that could be burned each year, finally banning the practice in 2010 in the relatively populated south Willamette Valley. Field burning is allowed in the Silverton Hills in east Marion County, where steep terrain and certain identified species still require thermal cleansing, as well as areas outside Lane, Benton, and south Linn counties. Since 2010, only 15,000 acres are allowed to be burned, most of it in the Silverton Hills. The actual amount burned has been less than the maximum allowed.

"Research shows that fine fescue and highland bentgrass, the two species that can still be burned in the northern Willamette Valley, do not produce much seed without summertime burning," says Roger Beyer, executive director of the Oregon Seed Council. "Also, the area's steep slopes have the potential to become an erosion issue. If a farmer can't burn the ground, they have to work the ground with heavy equipment. By burning the fields, the growers can keep a lot of sediment out of nearby waterways."

For the south Willamette Valley grass seed growers, it's been a learning experience ever since the last fire was lit in 2009. They seem to be coping as well as can be expected.

"Most farmers could see that field burning wasn't politically sustainable and so they were looking for alternatives before the ban became a fact," says grower George Pugh of Shedd. "Consequently, I don't believe we lost one farm operator because of the loss of field burning. We have been able to replace the tedious wait for permission to burn with the active planning and execution of alternative agricultural practices which, while not as simple, effective and economical as open field burning, have nevertheless been modest substitutes."

Alternatives have included more frequent rotation of the fields, which means more plowing, disking, and reseeding. Growers need to use more fuel and labor than before, according to Pugh, and the additional dust sometimes irritates neighbors. Some crops can be planted with "no-tilled" methods, but generally those practices require the use of more chemicals.

"One of the alternatives is multiple choppings of the post harvest straw," says Pugh. "Again, this practice is expensive in terms of machinery, fuel, and labor, but the straw will compost in the field and return some nutrients to the next crop. On the down side, the straw duff does make good habitat for slugs and voles which are very troublesome and expensive to control at times. More than one farmer has told me that they would rather spend money on tractor fuel than slug and vole baits."

The baling of annual ryegrass and fescue straw has been perhaps one of the most positive developments for grass seed growers. What was once a waste product has been in demand overseas as cattle feed.
"It was 25 years ago when Oregonians ranked open field burning of grass straw the number one environmental issue in the state," says Board of Agriculture Chairman Steve Van Mouwerick, who has made a living in the hay export business. "Today, virtually all that straw is harvested and exported to Asia, providing our state with a valuable and enduring marketplace solution to an environmental problem. To me, this is a wonderful example of the 'Oregon Way' that we need to always seek, a way that allows agriculturalists and business the time and resources to adapt to changing standards while remaining competitive and healthy."

Another response to the loss of field burning has been the development of alternative crops, which many grass seed growers are now planting. The Willamette Valley has seen an increase in production of wheat, which is back in the rotation along with oats and clover. Newer crops, including brassica species such as turnips and radishes, are also being used as rotation crops for grass seed.

Oregon is still the world leader in production of cool season grass seed with more than 95 percent of the dollars generated by the crop coming from other states and countries. The quality and consistency of Oregon grass seed production has bolstered the state's sterling reputation. Despite the challenges and changes over the past few years, Oregon grass seed remains a key industry and economic driver. And chances are, millions of people around the world got a good look this summer at grass with origins in Oregon.

"Anyone who watched World Cup soccer is able to see the value of our industry," says the Oregon Seed Council's Beyer. "Every one of those World Cup games was played on grass from Oregon seed."

Willamette Valley grass seed growers still see fire as a viable tool even as they have adapted to the law.

"As the line from Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi' says, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone," says Pugh. "Field burning was a good tool. While we, as growers, don't miss the stress and danger that was a part of the practice, we in the grass seed industry have moved on. But seldom does a summer go by that we don't look at some agronomic problems and say, 'a good fire would fix that.'"

Western Farmer-Stockman thanks ODA for information in this story.

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