Smoke Clears In Oregon Straw Baled, Exported To Japan; Acres Burned Down 80 Percent

In the heart of the Willamette Valley’s 400,000-acre grass seed crop, something is missing: smoke from burning fields.

And the industry that said it could not grow grass without setting its fields afire and blanketing the entire valley with thick smoke for a month appears, by all accounts, to be thriving without it.

Instead of producing smoke, straw and stubble are baled up and stacked in neat piles that line Highway 99. They await a trip to one of the Willamette Valley’s 10 new compressor plants where, further compacted and mixed with hay, they will be shipped to Japan.

What used to go up in smoke is now fetching $30 per ton. Last year between 340,000 and 360,000 tons of Willamette Valley straw went to the market, said Dr. Bill Young, a grass seed specialist at Oregon State University’s agricultural research center in Corvallis.

The burning ban in the Willamette farming region and elsewhere in Oregon is not total, Young said. Farmers last year burned 75,000 acres, including 30 percent of Oregon’s annual ryegrass crop and nearly all of its perennial bluegrass, Young said.

But it is a far cry from the 400,000 acres that used to generate noxious pollution every summer in this valley.

Ironically, said Young, the grass-producing acreage has gone up since Oregon began its burning phase-down.

“There’s no magic bullet here. The industry has had to come to grips with (no burning).”

The transition has not been easy, but it is manageable, said George Pugh, a fourth-generation farmer and a recent governor’s appointee to the Oregon State Board of Agriculture.

He grows grass on 1,800 acres with his father, about 25 miles south of Corvallis. This is the third year he has grown grass without burning.

“It’s a lot more difficult, and it has increased our costs,” he said. “But we’ve been in a real robust market so it hasn’t made a financial impact, yet.”

But markets change.

“This looks like the turnaround year. Orchard grass is in oversupply and we’re dropping back to the same prices we were being paid back in 1992. Tall fescue is moving into oversupply. So we’re going to see some impact (on profits) this year.”

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