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Valley field burning phase-out advances in Senate

Mitch Lies, Capital Press 4/30/09

SALEM - A Senate committee on Tuesday, April 28, passed a bill that would end most Willamette Valley field burning by next year.

Opponents said the impacts of Senate Bill 528 will be severe and immediate. It will eliminate the valley's production of certain high-value grass seed species and impair south Willamette Valley farmers' ability to make a profit.

The bill cuts allowable burn acreage to 20,000 this summer, with another 10,000 acres eligible for species produced on steep terrain or species identified as requiring burning.

Typically the "identified species," which include fine fescue and bentgrass, are produced on steep terrain.

SB528 reduces acreage allowed for burning under the identified species or steep terrain clause to 5,000 in 2010, cuts that in half in 2011, reduces it to 1,250 in 2012, and eliminates it in 2013.

All other Willamette Valley grass seed acreage would be off limits to open field burning by next year.

Currently, growers are allowed to burn 65,000 acres, including 25,000 acres of identified species.

In an unusual move, the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee sent the bill to Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. Courtney will decide whether to send the bill straight to the Senate floor or to the Ways and Means Committee. The bill carries an $85,000 fiscal impact.

The bill "will drive fine fescue production out of the valley," said Roger Beyer, executive secretary of the Oregon Seed Council.

"Canada can contract for 20,000 acres of fine fescue production in a heartbeat," said Derek Schumacher, a farmer from Sublimity who studied field burning while attending Oregon State University.

Schumacher said studies show fine fescue yields drop precipitously within two years after discontinuing field burning.

Last year growers produced fine fescue on 22,000 acres and burned all but 5,000 of the acres.

In addition, Troy Hadley, a Silverton-area grass seed grower, said in an earlier hearing that eliminating field burning will drive up his use of pesticides.

"I submit it is healthier and safer for Oregonians to continue burning," Hadley said.

Lucas Rue, a family farmer in the Silverton hills where fine fescue is widely produced, said the bill will dramatically limit what his family can produce.

"People are going to go out of business," he said.

Eliminating fine fescue essentially leaves wheat as the sole crop growers can produce on the steep slopes that drape the Silverton hills, he said. And with wheat prices dropping, that's not a good alternative, he said.

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