By Erin Zysett
POLK COUNTY -- Grass seed farmers in the area will start their field burning season this week, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Field burning, employed a way to cleanse grass seed fields of insects and disease after harvest, has been used in Oregon since 1948.
By 1969, more than 200,000 acres of farm land was being torched each year. That was the year when Senate Bill 396 was passed, which abolished the State Sanitary Authority and created the Department of Environmental Quality and smoke management program to monitor field burning.
That same year the smoke from field burning became so thick that, on Aug. 12, 1969 (Black Tuesday), Gov. Tom McCall had to declare an emergency ban for the rest of the season.
As a result of subsequent problems with air quality control, the state Legislature moved to ban field burning in 1971. The ban lasted until 1975.
The farmers in the area were outraged. Field burning was the only sure way to cleanse the grain fields and prepare them for the following season. Because of pressure from farm lobbing groups, the four-year ban was lifted and replaced with an acreage "phase-down" plan.
It was laid out like this: in 1975 only 235,000 acres were allowed to be burned. In 1976 just 195,000 acres; 1977 95,000 acres; and in 1978 and forever after only 50,000 acres were to be burned.
Also the DEQ was given permit and direct enforcement authority. First violations were cited, and the acreage fees (which were started in 1971) were raised to $3 per acre burned for 1975 and $4 per acre burned in 1976.
The phase-down plan was revised again in 1978, because there was a need to burn far more than 50,000 acres. In fact, 171,500 acres were burned and 280,000 acres registered that year.
A back-and-fourth battle continued for almost a decade. Environmental quality groups called for more restrictive burning, and farmers pleaded that there were still no better methods available to them.
During this time, the money being raised through burn fees was funding research to develop alternative methods and different plant strains that didn't require as much sterilizing.
Still, by 1988 more than 160,000 acres of grass fields were being cleansed through burnings. Then on Aug. 3, 1988, a farmer who owned property that bordered Interstate 5 was burning his fields when the wind shifted. Thick, brown, choking smoke floated across the I-5 corridor, blinding motorists and causing a chain of accidents.
Traffic ground to a halt on the main shipping artery on the West Coast. By the end of the day seven people were dead and 35 were injured.
The 1989 legislator did not ban field burning outright, but in 1991 House Bill 3343 established yet another open field burning phase-down and limited the use of propane flaming.
The goal was to have the number of acres burned annually under 40,000 by 1998; the final limitation was set at 65,000 acres.
That same year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture assumed research responsibilities and established a seven-member task force to develop alternative methods.
Alternatives to burning include exporting the straw for cattle overseas, and flail chopping (in which the straw residue in the field is machine chopped). What is left behind is either left on the ground as mulch or (in the case of annual grasses) plowed into the soil.
Grass seed is the fourth-largest agricultural crop in Oregon, netting $292 million last year for Oregon farmers. The problem is that many of the types of grass seed that are in high demand cannot be profitably produced without the use of field burning.
However, since 1988, only an average of 50,000 acres have been open-field burned.
If all goes as planned this year, the field burning season should end before the rains return in October.
According to the ODA, more than 61 percent of last year' 49,553 acres burned were done during four days of prime weather conditions. And significant field burning took place during 17 days total.
For more information: ODA 503-986-4559 or Oregon.gov/ODA.