There’s no affordable alternative to bluegrass field burning, dozens of embattled Spokane County farmers said Monday.
A week after they were stunned by a surprise state plan to ban field burning by 1988, they fought back at a Washington Department of Ecology workshop on the hot topic.
Spokane County growers took center stage on the workshop’s first day, focused on industry economics. They condemned the state move toward a burning ban.
“We were very disappointed with (Ecology Director) Mary Riveland’s announcement last Tuesday,” said Fairfield farmer John Cornwall, president of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.
The multimillion-dollar Eastern Washington bluegrass industry will take a huge hit, Cornwall said.
Growers will be forced to spend $450,000 on “unapproved alternative methods” to grow the crop, he said.
“Some people won’t survive. There will be less pounds of bluegrass,” Cornwall said.
It will cost more to raise bluegrass if the fields can’t be burned, said Washington State University economist Herb Hinman.
He’s been studying the economics of removing leftover straw from bluegrass fields on both irrigated and non-irrigated lands. Straw removal is necessary to stimulate seed production if the fields aren’t burned.
Hinman’s study shows it can be done, but at a big price.
“There’s a direct correlation between bluegrass (yields) and the amount of residue you get off the field,” Hinman said.
It will cost up to 10 times the $8-per-acre price of lighting a match and torching the leftover straw, Hinman said.
Change will be easier on irrigated fields than on dryland farms where most Spokane County farmers grow bluegrass, Hinman said.
“I don’t know how dryland farmers are going to afford it,” he said.
Hinman’s figures did not include the costs - or possible profits - of developing secondary markets for the tons of straw removed from the fields. In Oregon, much of the straw is used for cattle feed.
Growers are willing to search out alternative markets for the straw, Cornwall said.
“Not everyone’s going out of the bluegrass business just because we’re taking a 30 percent reduction,” he said.
Far different economic figures came from a panel of Idaho residents who live downwind from the fields.
Thousands of tourists left Sandpoint during the field burning season in 1988, according to a survey conducted by the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce.
In the survey, a total of 1,125 tourists said they’ll never return to the area due to field burning, said Marvella Nelson of the North Idaho business group.
Kootenai County Clean Air Coalition member Mike Rudbeck of Coeur d’Alene angered the farmers with some of his economic comparisons.
He added up the health care and hospitalization costs of six Spokane and North Idaho people who suffer from a variety of lung problems.
The tab for one grass-burning season: $538,000.
“That’s $4,375 for every farmer who burns bluegrass. How about the bills for the rest? Bluegrass farming is the only industry in the United States not held accountable for its own waste products,” Rudbeck said.
The Ecology workshop continues today and Wednesday from 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. at the Spokane Ag Trade Center.