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Necessary tool in toolbox, ‘but we don’t want to abuse it’

A controlled field burn is set at a property north of Grangeville, September 2013.

Photo by David Rauzi
A controlled field burn is set at a property north of Grangeville, September 2013.


Grass as part of a field burn.

“Our line of work is a lifestyle,” said Clark Tacke, president of Idaho County Grain Growers.

Farmers have been tilling soil, planting seeds, harvesting crops, and burning stubble for generations. Stubble burning is crop beneficial to many; to others it is environmentally unsafe. Idaho’s Crop Residue Burning (CRB) program has a long and rather troubled history.

Commonly referred to as stubble, crop residue is defined as any vegetation material remaining in the field after harvest, or vegetative material produced on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands.

In 2007, litigation resulted in a court decision and follow-on ban of field burning in Idaho. At this time Governor Otter called for growers and activists to join with state regulators to negotiate a solution to allow crop residue burning while protecting public health from smoke impacts.

Central parties included representatives from Safe Air for Everyone (SAFE), Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Idaho State Department of Agriculture (ISDA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, and Nez Perce tribes, as well as numerous farm organizations and knowledgeable farmers.

Brent Uhlorn, serving on the board of directors for the Nez Perce Prairie Grassgrowers, has participated in several of these discussions.

“As a producer, anyone using field burning as a tool needs to be especially careful,” said Uhlorn.

“Burning keeps fields healthier, kills disease, and is a natural control of pests,” Uhlorn continued.

“Our bluegrass fields are burned to shock the plants, helping to reproduce seed production. A bluegrass field managed this way will be productive for approximately six to eight years. Without burning, a field only produces approximately three years.”

Idaho farmers generally burn between 40,000 and 50,000 acres a year.

Referring to field burning versus not burning, Tacke said, “It’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other. It’s whatever your preference is.”

Tacke chooses to manage his crop residue with tillage tools. This Cottonwood farmer uses a rolling tilling system where a no-till drill allows next year’s seed crop to be planted into last year’s residue.

In 2008, DEQ developed a CRB Operating Guide to serve as the program’s main smoke management implementation tool. This guide is reviewed and improved each year as DEQ and other stakeholders gain expertise through experience with and refinement of forecast tools.

Uhlorn said, “Ultimately some good came out of this burning controversy. Before all this there was no regulatory control, almost anyone, anytime could light a field off. Now, with controls in place, other farmers, as well as the public, know when and where a field is burning.”

DEQ manages the CRB program on lands other than the five Indian reservations in Idaho.

Growers must obtain approval from DEQ before burning. Farmers get permission to burn their fields only if small particulate matter and ozone levels aren’t expected to exceed 75 percent of the national standard for those pollutants during the burn day.

The federal ozone standard was tightened October 1, 2015, with the potential to reduce allowable burn days by half, unless the state’s crop residue program is changed.

For several months now, Idaho farmers and environmental and public health groups have been trying to iron out their differences.

To avoid a large reduction in allowable burn days, DEQ proposed loosing Idaho’s ozone standard to 90 percent of the federal standard while leaving the state’s standard for small particulate matter, known as PM 2.5, at 75 percent of the federal standard.

Immediately, environmental and air advocacy groups objected. Environmental groups feel that the PM 2.5 standard needs to be tightened also.

Last year, Idaho farmers met all required standards for field burning.

“We had 100 percent success, with no health issues reported from field burning. We did a really good job of making sure the public stayed safe,” said Uhlorn.

Uhlorn pointed out that, often times, most of the smoke the public is concerned about is coming from forest fires, not field burning.

As years pass and populations grow, tighter government regulations begin to cripple American agriculture.

Hopefully a crop residue burning resolution can soon be reached, one that will allow Idaho farmers to continue producing healthy crops in a healthy environment.

“It’s a necessary tool in our toolbox, but we don’t want to abuse it,” Uhlorn said.

-- by Shelley Neal, Lucile, .


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