Burning decrease changed valley farming
Grass seed growers had to relearn how to produce their crop
By MITCH LIES
CORVALLIS, Ore. -- On Aug. 3, 1988, smoke from a grass seed field fire drifted across Interstate 5 near Albany, triggering a 22-car pileup that killed seven people and injured 37.
It took two legislative sessions before lawmakers initiated a mandated decrease in field burning, but after the accident, farmers knew their days of burning were over, said Dave Nelson, former administrator of the Oregon Seed Council, who is retired. The only question was when it would end, Nelson said.
That happened late in the 1991 legislative session. After several of what Nelson described as "brutal hearings," Speaker of the House Larry Campbell pulled Nelson aside and said, "OK, we're going to bring this to an end," Nelson said.
The resulting decrease in field burning changed the way Oregon farmers produce grass seed.
With the 20-year anniversary of the phase-down on hand, members of Oregon's grass seed industry reflected on how they relearned to produce grass seed.
Stand life isn't what it once was. Farmers and researchers have not found ways to economically produce certain species without burning. And problems with voles, slugs and certain weeds are at all-time highs. But most conclude that the transition was a success.
"I think it has been a remarkable transition," Nelson said.
"You've got a whole bunch of growers in a relatively contained box growing 65 percent of the world's grass seed, and the state comes along and says, 'We're going to change your farming practices,'" Nelson said. "For them to be able to adapt to that in a relatively short period of time and to make that transition and be successful is remarkable."
Keys to the transition were a group of researchers that dedicated their careers to nonthermal residue management and a farming community willing to adjust to life without fire.
"Without the researchers' work and without the farmers chasing a million different rabbit tunnels, the industry never would have made it across that barrier," Nelson said.
Concurrent to the industry learning how to produce grass seed without burning came the emergence of a straw industry that today ships upwards of 1.5 billion pounds a year to Asia for dairy and beef cattle feed.
The straw industry provided a market for some of the residue that farmers long had burned after harvest. But it didn't remove the weeds, insects and diseases that field burning had controlled.
Researchers, like growers, entered the phase-down with very little idea how -- or even if -- growers could produce high-quality grass seed without burning fields after harvest.
"The industry said this was going to destroy them," former Marion County Extension agent Gale Gingrich said. "They said, 'We can't live without this.'"
Among the production methods now common in the valley, growers bale off straw after harvest, or flail chop it and leave it on fields to decompose.
Initially, the thought of leaving several tons of straw on fields alarmed growers.
"They thought that was going to kill the crop, suffocate it," Marion County Extension agent Tom Silberstein said. "But the next spring, the straw was almost all gone. It broke down.
"Once they realized that was happening, they thought, 'This isn't so bad,'" Silberstein said.
One key to the successful transition in farm practices, researchers said, was a decision early on to take trials to grower fields.
"We took research plots out to the people," Oregon State University crop physiologist Tom Chastain said. "It wasn't just something done at Hyslop Farm (an OSU research site). We took it north valley, south valley, Silverton hills, good soils, bad soils."
"We were doing plots on a large enough scale that the grower could see the results in his field," Silberstein said. "Then their neighbor sees that.
"If we had done this on small plots at Hyslop, it would have been very hard to persuade growers to adopt these practices," Silberstein said.
OSU had been conducting research into alternatives to field burning since the 1970s, according to Bill Young, a retired extension specialist in seed production. But growers didn't take the research seriously until lawmakers initiated the phase-down, he said.
"Before that, there was never any incentive to change practices," Young said.
As part of the phase-down, lawmakers in 1991 put $500,000 in lottery funds to back research into field burning alternatives. Growers matched that with funding from field-burning fees and commodity commission assessments.
The funding was invaluable, researchers said.
"It wouldn't have happened without those dollars," Chastain said.
It hasn't been all smooth sailing. There were dozens of failed experiments, researchers said. And even today, problems with stand life and pests are more prevalent than ever.
"It's not the simple farming operation we used to have, and it's not as dependable," Shedd, Ore., grower George Pugh said. "Mother nature has more of a hold on us than she used to.
"But we learn, and hopefully we are going to find some solutions around some of these problems, too," Pugh said.