Grass seed farmers defend field burning practice
Herald and News 4/7/07
SALEM (AP) — Grass seed farmers turned out in force to show their opposition to a bill that would prevent them from burning their fields and dispute whether it contributes to serious health problems for people with asthma and emphysema.
‘‘I’ve been burning most my life,’’ said Eric Bowers, a grass seed farmer from Harrisburg who said he has asthma but that he’s never had an attack due to field burning smoke. ‘‘I know a lot of old time guys running around that have been burning fields for years and haven’t had any problems.’’
But the House Health Care Committee also heard from Holly Higgins, a Harrisburg woman and field burning opponent who compared grass seed farmers to cigarette smokers who don’t understand the health implications of subjecting others to their smoke.
‘‘Do I think that (the farmers) are consciously saying every time they light a field that ’I may cause permanent lung function damage to children’? No. But the medical research is undeniable,’’ she said.
Bill would end burning
The bill would end a practice used for generations of grass seed farmers in Oregon to clear out weeds, pests and prepare their fields for the next planting. When farmers burn their fields during the summer months, columns of smoke can reach heights of 6,000 feet.
Seed industry officials said that field burning only accounts for 2 percent of particulate emissions in the Willamette Valley during the summer field burning season.
Dave Nelson, a spokesman for the Oregon Seed Council, told the committee that most of the remaining emissions were caused by dust from roads, construction sites, mining and quarrying and agricultural tilling.
Grass seed farmers say that by selectively burning they can produce some of the purest seeds available and the practice is cheaper than using chemicals and other techniques used to cleanse that field burning, which has been significantly scaled back since 1991 when the Legislature restricted the number of acres that can be burned to just 65,000 acres, continues to have a significant impact on nearby communities.
According to Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, who testified in support of the bill, field burning may be one reason why Oregon has a higher asthma rate than the national average.
‘‘We know we’ve had a field burning problem for a long time,’’ said Walker.
Lawmakers in neighboring Washington and Idaho have nearly eliminated the practice in their states.
Rep. Paul Holvey, DEugene, who is sponsoring the bill, said a recent study from Washington state found that cost to the public from increased medication use, hospitalizations and missed work far exceeded the cost to farmers to use alternative methods to burning.
Grass seed is a $500 million-a-year industry in Oregon and the state supplies nearly 50 percent of the global market. Oregon’s mild, wet winters and dry summers have made it one of the top producers of the seeds that are used on golf courses, soccer fields and lawns around the world.
The measure would also ban other types of agricultural burning, such as the burning of stumps after Christmas trees are harvested and the propane flaming of mint fields. The state would allow but regulate open burning of agricultural waste.