Farmland Becomes Battleground Grass Grower Cites Soil, Water Benefits
Karl Felgenhauer is a bluegrass booster - and a walking science experiment.
At his farm northwest of Fairfield, Wash., the 55-year-old grower waves a spadeful of rich Palouse loam, bristling with the dense roots of Kentucky bluegrass.
He cradles the chunk in his long fingers. A gray layer of Mount St. Helen’s ash streaks through the soil, a relic of the 1980 eruption.
Above the ash layer is nearly an inch of pure, dark soil.
“Bluegrass is the only crop I know that builds topsoil in a region that’s been losing tons of it,” Felgenhauer says.
That’s just one of the environmental tradeoffs he wants city dwellers to consider in the bitter dispute over grass field burning.
The water experiment’s next.
Felgenhauer steers his rig to a nearby wheat field, where rivulets slash ridges in a hill and gush into a muddy ditch.
The runoff’s full of murky silt. But the water oozing from his bluegrass field is clear.
The silt is swept away, down Rattler’s Run Creek to Hangman Creek - Palouse erosion in motion.
So why is the vice chairman of the Washington Wheat Commission standing in a ditch gathering runoff in the middle of winter?
It’s also an experiment - in public perception.
He and his neighbors fear if Spokane doesn’t understand their crop, they’ll soon lose their right to burn.
State officials have scheduled a workshop this spring to discuss whether farmers should quit burning and use other management methods to reduce smoke.
Felgenhauer is opposed. He says he’d be forced to stop planting bluegrass - and reaping its environmental benefits - if he couldn’t burn.
Bluegrass crops are part of his plan to add nutrients to the soil, leaving his farm in better shape for his children and grandchildren.
“We feel we are preserving a more precious resource - our soil - than we are damaging the air for only a few days each year,” he says.
“The smoke dissipates. Dirty water doesn’t.”
As the farmers face a new Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority push to phase out field burning, Felgenhauer has stepped forward.
He worked the bluegrass issue intensively in 1989, the last time SCAPCA proposed a burning ban.
He and his neighbors brought SCAPCA board members to the Palouse on a similar tour. The farmers got the regulation changed, and continued to burn.
This time, they aren’t so sure they’ll win. A new clean-air coalition, Save Our Summers, has kept the issue alive since the smoke cleared last September. In December, the SCAPCA board again voted to start curtailing burning.
SOS has stressed another environmental impact - the health damage grass smoke can cause. Spokane doctors also are speaking out about their patients’ breathing problems during burning season.
“There was no organized group last time,” Felgenhauer says.
The fight’s over a way of life the farmers feel they’re losing.
The Felgenhauer clan pioneered on the Palouse in the 1880s. He’s proud to operate a Washington Centennial farm - a century’s legacy.
He farms 2,400 acres with son-inlaw Lonnie Green, and started growing bluegrass in the 1960s.
The Palouse was a remote place when his father rode a horse three miles to school in Fairfield. Now the Felgenhauer farm off North Kentuck Trail Road is only a dozen miles from Spokane’s spreading suburbs.
Farmers are warily watching the approach of “ranchettes” for the city’s urban professionals - including ex-Californians with $500,000 housing budgets.
“They love the open spaces, the blue sky. But they holler when we burn. Nobody told them we were here first,” he says.
“We want to be stewards of the land. Every farmer has that philosophy, and that’s why we’ve come up fighting on this issue.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos (2 color)