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No quick fix to burning question

UI graduate student and entomologist Jeff Neufeld, left, and farmer Lawrence Lampert of Dye Seed Ranch examine a grass seed field for weeds, insects and plant quality on Thursday. 
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
UI graduate student and entomologist Jeff Neufeld, left, and farmer Lawrence Lampert of Dye Seed Ranch examine a grass seed field for weeds, insects and plant quality on Thursday. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

SETTERS, Idaho — By 8:30 Thursday morning, a long line of pickup trucks had gathered on the edges of a dirt road near this tiny crossroads south of Coeur d’Alene and about 70 people – mostly farmers, mostly men, many wearing ball caps – were tromping around some stands of Kentucky bluegrass.

These two fields, one on either side of the road, are themselves something of a crossroads in a raging battle of legislation and lawsuits aimed at either defending or ending the common practice of burning off field stubble each summer after the commercial seed heads are harvested.

As the population of Washington’s Spokane County and Idaho’s Kootenai and Bonner counties has grown, smoke from burning fields is increasingly seen as a potential health hazard. The state of Washington banned grass stubble burning in Spokane County in 1999, citing public health concerns.

Farmers who grow commercial grass seed have been named in as many as four lawsuits in Idaho, where burning continues.

But the crowd that gathered amid the nodding, thigh-high seed heads and meadowlark song on Thursday morning was looking for solution instead of conflict.

The two fields, worked by area farmers, are at the midpoint of what is intended as a six-year research project to explore alternatives to field burning. Thursday’s gathering was part of a tour organized by agricultural researchers at the University of Idaho.

“One of the things I learned today is I don’t think there is any magic answer,” said Jeff Tee, who at age 29 is among the rare young farmers. “You can count the number of farmers under 35 on a couple of hands,” he said.

When he was in college, running a farm was the last thing he wanted to do, Tee said, but after several years in corporate agri-business he decided to get back into the game. He and his dad farm some 3,000 acres of wheat, lentils and bluegrass in both Idaho and Washington.

Tee brings a new energy and a willingness to challenge accepted practices such as field burning. He peppered researchers with specific questions about real-life applications of the experiments.

He came away with two impressions:

There is no clear alternative to field burning right now.

Farmers need to find one.

“I would really like it if we could meet with the opponents to this practice and find some common ground and reduce emissions and not get sued 10 times a summer,” Tee said. “This is an emotional issue on both sides, but if we could sit down at the negotiating table, I’d tell people I’m not out to hurt them and I’d like to hear them tell me that they don’t want to shut me down.”

Patti Gora, director of the Sandpoint-based Safe Air For Everyone, dryly noted she is not the most popular person to show up at a field tour, but expressed views similar to Tee’s.

“I think clearly people were hoping to find a magic bullet, or something, that I really don’t think they found,” Gora said.

Despite some nervousness at joining a crowd of farmers, Gora said she was interested in the research and that “A couple of the growers were kind enough to introduce themselves and talk to me.

“Any time we can reach out and talk to each other, that’s a good thing,” she said.

Much of the talk Thursday centered on whether the various experiments under way would keep grass-seed yields at an acceptable level to counter the increased costs of removing or somehow dealing with the tons of stubble after harvest.

Research into alternative methods has been conducted for decades, but was never widely applied. Fire has become the benchmark method of clearing a field because it is cheap, fast and has the added benefit of weed suppression.

Turf-grass farmers clear out the stubble after the late-summer harvest so sunlight reaches the crowns of the perennial plants to get the growth of the next year’s seed off to a good start before winter.

Some of the UI research showcased Thursday explored methods of baling the stubble, chopping it up with mowers, artificially suppressing the crop for one year with herbicides in hopes for higher yields the next and various combinations of these and other approaches.

Researchers Donn Thill, John Holman and a host of others, and the farmers who work the land – Herb Millhorn on the west side of the road, Chris Ramsey to the east – gave a mixed report.

Millhorn went first, shaking his head at a grid of test plots where researchers were experimenting with various herbicides to see if a grass crop could be artificially suppressed. The field has never been burned. Yields were a decent 601 pounds of clean seed per acre in 2002, Millhorn said, dropped to 459 pounds last summer and the field came out of winter a weed-infested mess this year, he said.

“This is the last year for this field,” he said.

Ramsey’s fields, to an untrained eye, looked much healthier and information passed out Thursday showed clean seed yields last summer ranging from 983 to 795 pounds per acre for the various alternate methods. A control plot that was given a traditional burn last August produced 979 pounds per acre.

Ramsey’s eye could see the holes in the test plots that augured for lower seed yields this summer, but he was still hopeful.

“What these fields are really trying to show is we can reduce emissions by 70 or 80 percent over the life of the stand and yet keep the benefits,” he said. Ramsey said many local farmers have at least part of their acreage in bluegrass because the crop, in addition to being profitable, tends to build better soil over time and was introduced to this area in the 1950s as a way to control erosion on hillside fields.

Last weekend’s rains hammered a newly planted field nearby, Ramsey said, wiping out much of his labor. “That’s all mud in the lake right now, but there are tradeoffs to growing grass that are worth fighting for.

“We are really hopeful we can reduce emissions and be good neighbors,” Ramsey said.

Grass growers, facing lawsuits, a loss of insurance coverage and a pending Idaho Supreme Court ruling on a so-called “shield law,” are in the middle of a management crisis, Gora said.

“I am glad the research is continuing. It’s important, and I think everyone is doing their best to find that magic bullet,” she said.