Organic grower sees renewed potential in chemical-free option

By SEAN ELLIS

Capital Press

BOISE -- A bill that passed the Idaho Legislature this year amends the state's field burning law to make it easier for mint growers to propane flame their farm fields.

The new law, which exempts propane flaming from the state's main field burning law, is expected to primarily benefit mint growers, who have typically used the practice to spot heat their fields to control diseases and kill weeds.

But farmers who grow other crops are also considering adopting the practice, which used to be widespread in the Treasure Valley area.

Robert McKellip, president of the Idaho Mint Growers Association, said mint growers have cut back on propane flaming their fields because of high fuel prices. But with chemicals that control diseases and pests becoming scarcer, it's nice to have that choice, he said.

"We keep losing more and more good chemicals all the time, so we're running out of good options," he said. "It's nice to have that option if we need it."

McKellip said mint growers use the entire plant -- even the straw is used to make mint oil -- and technically aren't field burning when they conduct propane flaming, which involves using hooded torches to heat the ground and kill diseases.

Idaho grows more than 10,000 acres of mint each year and the state's crop, which ranks third nationally, is entirely centered around Boise's Treasure Valley area. Mint farmers who use propane flaming typically do so in late fall or this time of year, just before the plants emerge from the ground.

While the change in the law was designed mainly with mint growers in mind, farmers who produce other crops may adopt the practice as well now that they don't have to deal with the main field burning rules.

"The bureaucracy of the field burning law is cumbersome and stupid," said George McClelland, who grows a variety of crops on 1,000 acres in the Fruitland area of western Idaho. He said he's considering propane flaming not only his mint, but his onion and alfalfa crops as well to control weeds.

About 10 percent of his acres are certified organic and he believes propane flaming is more environmentally friendly because fewer chemical inputs are used.

"Thirty years ago, it was standard practice in the Treasure Valley to flame emerging onions," he said. "But as chemicals improved, it became less common."

The legislation that makes it easier, and cheaper, to propane flame fields didn't face any significant opposition and passed the House and Senate unanimously. Even Safe Air for Everyone, the Northern Idaho-based group that went to court to create Idaho's current field burning law, is OK with it.

SAFE officials say the new rule contains enough safeguards to ensure public health is protected.

"We're absolutely fine with that (change)," said Patti Gora, executive director of SAFE, which was part of the negotiations that led to the amendment. "Propane burning takes place at a much higher temperature and does not create the types of huge plumes that other crop burning does."

Randy Stegen, a southern Idaho smoke analyst with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, said the main purpose of the change is to create a more streamlined registration process for the practice.

The new rule being written by the DEQ also exempts from Idaho's main field burning law any burns of less than 1 acre of evenly distributed crop residue or 2 tons of piled crop residue. It also exempts bales that have been removed from the field.

Farmers who conduct those types of burns will still have to comply with another, less stringent program that requires them to contact their local fire department and only burn on days when air quality is good.

The new rule provides for smaller fees and less notification time.

"Hopefully, it will make it easier for people to get their small burning conducted," Stegen said, adding that the change will "open up a lot more potential days for these small burns to be conducted."

The DEQ's Board of Environmental Quality will vote on the new rule during its April 25 meeting in Boise.

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