Banning grass field burning in Spokane County could reduce farm land values and eliminate dozens of jobs, industry experts said as they recoiled from the state’s surprise announcement Tuesday.
It also could trigger a shift of grass seed production to Idaho, where no ban is threatened, as the multimillion-dollar industry migrates toward areas which still permit fire.
“If I’m a Washington farmer and there’s an Idaho farmer next door who can burn, it’s going to be extremely difficult to compete,” said Herb Hinman, an economist with Washington State University Cooperative Extension.
“And regardless of who you are, it’s going to be hard to take a 900-acre grass farm and switch it to 900 acres of wheat or some other crop. It just isn’t that easy.”
Officials with Jacklin Seed Co., Heart Seed Co. and other companies that contract with Eastern Washington farmers to grow lawn seed said more than 200 production jobs are threatened by the state Department of Ecology’s decision to eliminate grass field burning by 1998. They expect the ban to force some companies out of business.
“Farmers are the loser and the public is a loser,” said Terry Peters, manager of Seeds Inc. in Rockford, which employs 55 full- and part-time people in Washington and Idaho. “A lot of people don’t understand the impact of such a quick reduction. There’s no way a company can respond to anything this fast.”
Clarence Argyle, a Spokane Valley resident and part owner of Heart Seed in Fairfield, said unless bluegrass farms are snapped up by real estate developers, the value of the farm land will drop.
Soil on much of the bluegrass ground south of Spokane is too thin to adequately support deeprooted crops such as wheat, he said, and bluegrass does not grow well when farmers are not allowed to burn off excess plant growth each year.
“If farmers go out (of business), we go out,” said Argyle, whose company employs 16 full- and part-time people. “I’m half owner of a $2 million seed operation that’s worth salvage value if we can’t burn.”
Intermountain Grass Growers Association says the industry pumps $90 million annually into the Inland Northwest economy.
Several farmers work land on both sides of the state line. Spokesman Glenn Jacklin said Post Falls-based Jacklin Seed has contracts to buy 15,000 acres of lawn seed grown in Washington.
“I’m not feeling too well; that’s a chunk of business,” he said. “We’re going to be looking to contract a good amount of our acreage in Idaho.”
Wayne Meyer, an Idaho legislator and Rathdrum Prairie bluegrass farmer, said there’s no room for expansion on the prairie. But acreage could be added around the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Reservation, where farmers grow grass seed on about 15,000 acres, he said.
At present, Idaho growers clearly have less to worry about than their counterparts in Washington. As a right-to-farm state, Idaho lawmakers are more tolerant of the decades-old practice of torching fields after harvest to stimulate seed production.
Ironically, North Idaho growers also are better equipped to adopt no-burn alternatives than Spokane farmers. Much of the 9,000 acres of grass seed around Rathdrum is irrigated, boosting yields enough to possibly reap a seed crop year after year without burning.
“People want us to farm, but they want to take all our tools - fire and chemicals - away from us,” Meyer said. “They want us to go back to using the hoe.”
, DataTimes MEMO: See related story under the headline: State to ban grass burning by 1998