More than 2,200 acres of grass fields on the Rathdrum Prairie will go unburned this year, by far the most since clean air groups started closely monitoring grass burning.
Steady rains this week washed away growers’ last chance to burn under voluntary field-burning guidelines adopted for this year. The agreement set a 47-day burning season with no burning done on Fridays and the weekends.
The burn season is set to end next week, but grass farmers say it would take days of warm winds to dry out the the soggy fields.
Burning shocks the plants into producing more grass seed the next year. A University of Idaho study showed that burned fields produced an average of 960 pounds of seed per acre. Unburned fields produced just 350 pounds.
Jacklin Seed Co., a leading grass seed distributor and employer of 110 people in Kootenai County, gets grass from about half the unburned acres, said Glenn Jacklin, operations manager for the company’s production division.
Other major seed producers such as Cenex also contract for the grass off those unburned acres.
Fields that cannot be burned this year will be plowed instead, said Jacklin.
“That’s going to translate into about $1 million loss to Jacklin,” he said. “That makes me pretty worried about next year.”
Concerns about next year’s crop come just as farmers complete what most consider to be an average 1995 harvest.
“I think the expectations were lower than normal because we had such a dry fall,” said Glen Murray, a bluegrass researcher at the University of Idaho. “But I think yields were a little better than expected in some areas.”
Grass seed prices also were a bit higher than normal, Jacklin said.
To cope with the inability to burn, grass seed farmers on the Rathdrum Prairie will try to plant more wheat on acres that didn’t get burned, said grass farmer and Idaho Republican State Representative Wayne Meyer in Rathdrum.
“We hope the price of wheat stays up,” said Meyer. “We can recoup some of the lost money there.”
The controversy over grass field burning continues to rage. Sandpoint’s Clean Air Coalition announced plans Tuesday to challenge the Idaho law that allows farmers to farm without legal interference.
Meyer, previously the president of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association, said he doubted that farmers would try to change the 47-day voluntary burning season and its restrictions.
In 1994, burning on the Rathdrum Prairie finished Aug. 23, Meyer said. This year, one grass grower has none of his acres burned, he said.
The economics of the grass seed industry are often obscured in the haze of the clean air battle, say industry officials.
Grass seed farming creates a $185 million crop and employs 1,500 people in the Inland Northwest, said Martha Dailey, spokesman for the grass growers.
The industry’s contribution to the local economy remains overlooked in the debate, Jacklin said.
“People take it for granted, but it’s the force behind the economies in the two states.”