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House sends field burning scale down to governor's desk

Mitch Lies, Capital Press 6/29/09

SALEM - Oregon grass seed farmers were dealt a blow Monday, June 29, when the Oregon House approved a near ban on field burning in the Willamette Valley.

Under the bill, grass seed farmers in most of the valley can burn no more than 20,000 acres this year. After that, the practice is all but banned.

An exception to Senate Bill 528 added in recent weeks gives farmers the option to burn up to 15,000 acres of identified species - most fine fescues and creeping bentgrass - and on certain steep terrain fields.

The bill, which previously passed the Senate, is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Rural Republican lawmakers and some Democrats roundly opposed the bill in a heated floor debate. But in the end, Democratic leadership, armed with a 36-24 advantage, held sway in a 31-29 vote.

"It's the most hypocritical, awful display of raw power I've seen this session," said Rep. Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton. "How dare they do this to farmers?"

Several lawmakers characterized the restrictions as crippling to an industry already reeling from the economic recession.

The restrictions are expected to drive up production costs and could run some farmers out of business, several said.

"Senate Bill 528 will shut down a half a billion dollar industry," Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, said in the floor debate.

"Imposing increased costs and potentially eliminating markets could not come at a worse time," said Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario.

"In my opinion, in this session, we've moved from a policy of 'do no harm' to 'do no harm except to the farm,'" Gilliam said.

Farmers in the south valley, where annual ryegrass seed is widely produced, are expected to be the hardest hit by the new law.

"We're definitely going to see economic impacts to south valley farmers who are growing annual (ryegrass) on marginal lands," said Katie Fast, lead lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau.

Studies have shown farmer revenues are off 12 cents a pound under a field burning ban, she said.

"I think (the House's action) was extremely short sighted," said Roger Beyer, executive secretary of the Oregon Seed Council. "Farmers in the south valley are faced with alternatives that are all bad, especially in this economy."

Bill backers, meanwhile, called the vote historic.

"Oregonians have long suffered every summer due to field burning smoke," said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, a sponsor of the bill. "The health risks posed by field burning are well known and this bill is a significant step towards reducing those risks."

Holvey and Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, earlier said they were prepared to seek a ban in a referendum to the voters if SB528 failed. That ban, Holvey said, would have been more restrictive than the current bill.

Beyer, however, said the industry "did not fear an initiative."
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