For Grower, Burning Is An Ugly Necessity

SUNDAY, AUG. 17, 1997

Yvonne Satchwell studied the cashier’s check and its seemingly-endless string of zeros. She shuddered.

A pushy man - Satchwell calls him “an industrialist” - had offered to buy her Rathdrum Prairie bluegrass farm, and carve some of it up for development. He even gave Satchwell and her husband Elmer a check.

They gave it back.

“It was a lot of money,” Satchwell said last week, raising an eyebrow for emphasis. “I could be on the Riviera right now.

“But we decided we’d put too much work into this ground to roll over and sell it.”

That was 20 years ago.

Now Elmer is gone, taken by cancer two years ago, leaving Yvonne Satchwell as farm matriarch.

And as bluegrass growers around her ready their land for development, Satchwell is hoping to keep her 1,800 acres intact.

“We’re farmers,” she said. “We want to remain farmers.”

The neighboring growers promise they’ll phase out the controversial practice of field burning. The Satchwells promise only to continue it.

“I want to shoot straight,” said her son-in-law, Wade McLean, now the farm’s chief operator. “I feel better telling the public I have to burn to stay in business.”

It’s not that they enjoy the process, McLean said. Family members describe field burning much as their critics do: ugly, dangerous, scary.

“It’s horrendous,” Satchwell said. “You’re watching the wind, watching the fire. You’re wearing masks and bandannas. It’s a very serious, ulcer-causing operation.”

Her daughter, Wanda McLean, worries her husband and children will be injured by smoke or flames.

“There’s nothing like the pressure on you when you’re out there lighting fires,” her husband Wade McLean said. “We hate it.”

The practice has left them ostracized in a community they maintain they arrived in first.

Satchwell rarely eats in restaurants, especially in August. She wants to avoid hearing talk about “those nasty grass-burners.”

“You end up feeling like you’ve got leprosy,” she said.

But McLean insists burning is essential to keep the farm “profitable - that dirty word.”

And grass farming is what brought the family prosperity after 70 years of struggle.

Elmer Satchwell’s grandparents homesteaded on the prairie in 1897, back when the land was dry earth over harsh gravel. They ran cattle and chickens, horses and pigs, and broke the tough land to plant crops.

“The soil wasn’t right,” McLean said. “They couldn’t make much of a living on grain crops.”

Heavy winds rose dust so thick it closed roads and forced the family to cover dinner plates with cloth.

Until the family got its first well in 1949, water was precious as a cool July day.

Family members caught rain in barrels. Water rolled from gutters into buckets. What wasn’t snatched from above, was hauled in from Rathdrum.

“I’ll say this,” Yvonne Satchwell said. “They took a bath once a week.”

In the early 1960s, bluegrass came to the prairie. The Satchwells found a crop and a lifestyle they’re not willing to give up.

McLean remembers his few years punching the clock at a sawmill. Trapped indoors on crisp sunny days, hours “crawled so slow time went backwards.”

Now he’s outside much of the year, with his family all around him.

On a typical day McLean may herd hired hands to the field or mollify an anxious crop buyer.

He’ll make several harried runs to town, to truck a sick calf to the vet or buy parts for a combine.

Recently, he’s installed a boiler to process fields of mint, made emergency plumbing repairs, helped his kids prep for the county fair.

“Where else can you work 18 hours a day, and know where your kids are 90 percent of the time?” McLean asked. “When I see their friends hanging out over here, I know we’re doing the right thing.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)


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