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Field Burning Panned As Bad Farming Stubble Necessary To Retain Water On Fields, Conservationist Contends

Environmentalists say field burning, a tradition during fall in Idaho, not only pollutes the air but also is unnecessary.

Charlie Sellers, an Idaho Falls member of the Idaho Conservation League, said besides the economics of it, burning field stubble to prepare for the next year is a bad idea.

“We’d like to get away from the argument about pollutants and irritants and things like that and put it back on an economic basis,” he said.

He contends that field stubble holds snow on fields better and adds precious water to the field during the spring runoff.

“It’s not much of an issue. It’s just plain unnecessary,” he contended.

Farmers burn fields in the fall to get rid of grain and other crop residue.

It’s a big issue in North Idaho, where farm lobbyists have been able to stave off state laws that would prevent it. In the Idaho Falls area, smoke from field burning that limited visibility was listed as a factor in two weekend accidents that injured at least three people.

On Monday, smoke from burning fields was readily apparent in downtown Idaho Falls.

“Ordinarily, we wouldn’t recommend it,” said Dennis Hadley, district conservationist for the Natural Resource Conservation Service in Idaho Falls.

“If you burn all the residue off, it leaves the soil relatively bare and makes it subject to more erosion.”

Farmers contend they need to clear stubble from grain fields before the next replanting, and burning it off is the cheapest alternative.

But what is cheap today could end up costing farmers in the long run, Hadley says.

“Generally, it makes healthier soil if you can incorporate the residue and build up your organic matter,” he said. “The burning has a tendency to destroy organic matter in the upper few inches of soil and our soils are generally low in organic matter.”

Hadley said his department advocates burning if it is done to level a field to make an irrigation system more efficient. Flat fields use less water.

Bonneville County farmer Rodney Payne said burning is critical to get a field level, and a level field can use half the water as a bumpy one.

“It’s a tremendous water savings,” he said.