CORVALLIS - Oregon's grass seed growers have really put the nix on field burning.
"If you see a pillar of smoke these days, it's more likely to be a slash burning of forested lands than a grass seed field," said Tom Chastain, a crop physiologist at Oregon State University.
"This is a great environmental success story. If you do see a grass seed field burning, it's more than likely a grass variety that just won't tolerate any other management."
For years, billows of smoke marked where the growers burned straw to sanitize their fields. Then one day in 1988, a shift in wind sent the smoke across Interstate 5, triggering a 23-car pileup that killed seven people.
Not long after that incident, the Oregon Legislature set regulations, limiting open field burning to about 10 percent of total grass seed acres. And this summer, with the usual burning season set to begin in mid-July, acres burned are expected to hit an all time low - in fact, less than the limit set.
Chastain said growers have three grass seed management options:
- Chop and leave straw on the field. The 2- to 3-inch layer composts in place, adding natural fertilizer to the soil.
- Bale straw and remove it from the field. The straw can be exported, usually to Japan, or sold to local farmers for livestock feed and bedding. After bales are removed, grass seed growers often use a flail mower to level the stubble.
Among grass species that require thermal management (burning) are fine fescues, like creeping red fescue. "You can't leave any straw on it, or it won't grow, flower or reproduce," Chastain said. This grass, used for shaded lawns, accounts for about 1 percent of Oregon's 400,000-plus grass seed acres.
Another type of grass that usually is burned is chewings fescue, commonly used in cool-season grass mixes of Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass.
"It isn't that chewings has to be burned, but it grows on the hills on the eastern side of the Willamette Valley where baling would be very difficult," said Gale Gingrich, an OSU extension agent for Marion County. "Growers in the hills don't want to burn. If they do, they must have a burning crew and they must get approval by officials.
"Growers would rather bale, chop or whatever, so they can control what has to be done," she added.
Gingrich is secretary of Agriculture Fiber Association, Inc., an organization that includes state agriculture officials and 25 major operators involved in handling and exporting straw. Those operators see that the straw is baled, compressed and sold abroad.
According to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Willamette Valley acres registered for open field burning are down 19 percent from last year. Linn County reports a 14 percent decrease; Marion, 14 percent; Lane, 12 percent; Benton, 44 percent; Yamhill, 54 percent; Clackamas, 20 percent, and Polk, a 68 percent decrease.
In addition to the 39,427 acres allocated for open field burning this year, another 1,712 acres of steep terrain and l8,167 acres of identified species that require burning have been registered and will be allocated by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Actual acres burned will be far less, said Chastain, pointing out that in 1997 growers registered 89,000 acres but only burned 57,000 acres.
Oregon produces two-thirds of the U.S. grass seed crop and 93 percent of that is produced in the Willamette Valley. The crop was worth $316 million in 1996, ranking second among agricultural commodities produced in Oregon.
The grass seed acres are divided into perennial ryegrass (150,000 acres), annual ryegrass (120,000), tall fescue (100,000), orchardgrass (20,000), chewings tall fescue (9,000) and creeping red fescue (4,000 acres).
The market for grass seed is good. So is the grass seed straw market. Mark Mellbye, a crops extension agent in Linn County, said the "farm gate value" of straw in his county is more than $6 million a year.