Bluegrass growers pledged 27 years ago to reduce the grass smoke that smudges the region’s skies each year. So far, they haven’t delivered.
While they’ve spent more than $300,000 on research into grass burning over the past 20 years, documents from the Washington Department of Ecology show that the growers:
Poured about half that money into a questionable mobile field burner designed to reduce smoke. The growers kept studying the machines long after they were rejected elsewhere as impractical.
Opposed an Oregon researcher who conducted a $70,000 study for the Ecology Department that concluded fields didn’t need to be burned, only dethatched.
Used lobbyists, lawyers and politicians to pressure state and local bureaucrats who have tried to curtail burning.
Now the industry is mobilizing again, as farmers face another proposed burning ban and a state Clean Air Act hearing into field burning alternatives in March.
For years, the growers have been fighting public pressure to quit burning.
In 1969, after a year of heavy smoke in the urban area, Idaho and Eastern Washington growers founded the Intermountain Grass Growers’ Association.
Its goal was to “minimize air pollution through research into alternatives to open field burning,” according to the articles of incorporation.
In the 1950s, farmers grew only 320 acres of bluegrass in Spokane County. By 1969, bluegrass covered 26,300 acres, and has remained a major crop since. Farmers burned 25,719 acres in 1995.
Meanwhile, the county’s population has climbed from 280,000 in 1969 to nearly 400,000 today - including an estimated 42,000 people with chronic lung disease who can’t tolerate heavy smoke.
“Grass fields should be out in the country. But now, the town’s coming to them,” said Stan Reed, 78, who helped start the area grass seed industry in 1939.
The region’s 450 growers say they try to manage smoke by burning only on days when winds carry it away from population centers.
They also say there’s still no cheap and practical alternative to field burning, which clears harvested fields and encourages seed regrowth.
“At this time, I feel burning is our only viable alternative,” said Idaho Rep. Wayne Meyer, who grows bluegrass on the Rathdrum Prairie.
But not everyone thinks the annual burning is necessary.
“Since the ‘60s, they’ve been stalling,” said Orlin Reinbold, former owner of the Davenport Seed Co. “If they can get by the short burning window when the public howls, then they can burn for another year.”
In 1992, Reinbold warned Washington’s agricultural burning task force that, if grass growers didn’t reform, they’d eventually lose their right to burn.
At the same meeting, Glenn Jacklin of industry giant Jacklin Seed Co. said farmers could reduce burning by mechanically removing leftover stubble that would otherwise go up in smoke.
Those warnings hit home last month when the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority voted to phase out field burning, probably within seven years.
Spokane County Commissioner Steve Hasson, SCAPCA’s new chairman, said a burning ban will force change the same way that Congress made the auto industry design cleaner cars to cut air pollution.
“The auto industry also resisted - but it did change,” Hasson said.
Scientists first started looking for alternatives to open field burning in the late 1970s at the University of Washington.
The research switched in the 1980s to Washington State University, where professors and graduate students conducted the work.
Bluegrass growers decided which research projects were funded.
Using money generated from a 50-cent per acre research fee, they spent $159,000 through 1991 studying mobile machines that burn only a small portion of a field at a time. The machines proved expensive and inefficient, and were never used commercially. In Oregon, they were tried in the 1970s and rejected in the 1980s.
In 1991, the research changed focus after the Washington Legislature amended the state’s Clean Air Act.
The law gave regulators authority to cut air pollution in urban areas and monitor the grass seed industry to see whether burning alternatives were viable.
The Ecology Department solicited research ideas aimed at reducing smoke.
Area growers were wary of the state’s new role. They got angry when Ecology Department chose Oregon researcher Art Krenzel, who wanted to study a non-burning technique to treat bluegrass fields after harvest.
His $70,800 Phoenix Industries proposal called for dethatching fields to let sunlight penetrate the foliage and stimulate seed production.
A chemical engineer, Krenzel was voted DuPont’s “Engineer of the Year” in 1965.
Krenzel said he wasn’t prepared for the hostility from Spokane area grass growers.
“This was the most brutal project I ever worked on. They felt absolutely threatened by this. They accused me of lying, cheating, having a secret agenda,” Krenzel said. “I came to them in honesty, and I’d never sully my reputation by cutting corners. It still makes me angry.”
“I disagree with that completely,” said
Fairfield farmer John Cornwall, president of the grass growers’ association.
“I don’t know where he comes off as thinking we were hostile. We didn’t think his project was designed scientifically,” Cornwall said.
Krenzel concluded fire wasn’t the key to plant growth; soil preparation and temperature were.
Dethatching can be done immediately after harvest, eliminating the need for mass burning, Krenzel concluded.
Growers opposed the Ecology Department’s decision to keep paying for Krenzel’s project for three years. The project continued through WSU, with Krenzel hired to finish the project.
Growers felt threatened by Krenzel, said WSU professor Bill Johnston, who carried on the dethatching work. “They didn’t like his findings. They could see a lot of negatives” in the dusty, time-consuming dethatching effort, he said.
Growers said it didn’t pay, either.
“The yields drop 25 percent without burning. That’s not good enough,” said Meyer, the Rathdrum Prairie grower.
Farmers angry with the Krenzel grant turned to legislative allies to rein in the Ecology Department.
In September 1992, Al Haslebacher, then executive director of the grass growers’ association, wrote to Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton.
Prince’s rural district includes part of southern Spokane County, where most of the state’s bluegrass fields are located.
Haslebacher complained about the agency’s “clear agenda” to rush a costly alternative to field burning, putting growers out of business in the process.
He called Pete Peterson, an air quality official at Spokane’s Ecology Department office, an “activist” pushing farmers too quickly to stop burning.
Peterson fired back. “There is in truth uneasiness that we have moved too slow,” Peterson wrote his supervisors in Olympia.
“For over a decade, Ecology followed the grass seed growers’ lead in spending specious resources to test and retest a mobile grass burner concept that appeared dead from the start on the basis of economics,” Peterson said in his letter.
Krenzel’s dethatching process had some problems - primarily the dust it generated in dryland conditions.
But it gave Ecology “mounting evidence that grass seed can be profitably grown in most situations if it is burned only every other year,” Peterson said.
He added scientists are working on new varieties of short-rotation grasses that produce seed with no burning.
Last spring, Prince and other rural Eastern Washington legislators supported a bill that yanked Ecology’s power to pay for independent scientists like Krenzel.
It directs all future grass research money to WSU.
“We like WSU very much, but this limits our flexibility,” said Grant Pfeifer of Ecology’s Spokane office.
And Peterson? He’s no longer allowed to work on grass burning issues.
“Ecology is taking a different approach across the board in dealing with the regulated community - a less confrontational approach - and Pete was perceived to be confrontational,” said Joe Williams, Ecology’s air quality chief in Olympia.
Prince defends his intervention with the state agency.
“They weren’t being even-handed at all. I’m interested in answers, but their answer was, ‘Put (the farmers) out of business.”’
Spokane’s growth only increases pressure to find an alternative to grass burning.
It’s the only place in the Northwest where a major city sits next to thousands of acres of grass fields.
“When you put all that agriculture up against all those people,” you’ve got a problem, said Mike Ingham, general manager of the Davenport Seed Co.
“If I had hay fever or emphysema and had to stay in my house for weeks, I wouldn’t be happy,” Ingham said.
“But if I’m a farmer who’s produced bluegrass for 25 to 30 years, I’d also be scared I couldn’t make a living. That’s hard too.”
In other populated areas, the industry has been forced to curtail burning.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where 75 percent of the world’s grass seed is grown, it took a disaster.
In 1989, seven people died and 38 were injured in a massive pileup when grass field smoke socked in Interstate 5, the main freeway route through the valley.
After the accident, the Oregon Legislature approved a burning phase-down.
Most of the state’s Kentucky bluegrass industry moved to eastern Oregon, where it’s easier to burn. But Oregon researchers have been making headway on no-burn options.
Raking and flailing fields to remove stubble after harvest is a promising alternative, said Tom Chastain, an Oregon State University seed crop physiologist.
Cleaning works best on irrigated bluegrass. On dryland fields, such as in the Palouse, it’s more of a “mixed bag,” Chastain said.
Chastain and the University of Idaho’s Glenn Murray have both challenged the often-repeated belief that fire “shocks” a plant into producing new seed.
“That’s not what’s happening. There is no physiological shock associated with field burning,” Chastain said.
The key is to remove stubble to enhance regrowth. To get a bluegrass yield comparable to burning, it’s necessary to remove 90 percent of the straw and to reduce the height of the stubble as quickly as possible.
These field-cleaning techniques cost more - possibly three to four times more - than open burning, said Herb Hinman, a WSU agricultural economist.
There’s a 16-cent difference per pound of seed grown between the most expensive form of field raking and the cheapest approach, open burning, Hinman said in a report.
Growers will adopt alternative methods if they are economically viable, Chastain said.
“It can be done, but it will cost more. And change is frightening.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: “Grass burning research”