Farmers feel burned by clean air regs

  • Karl Felgenhauer walks across his grass farm - Christopher Anderson/Spokesma

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Eastern Washington, with its rolling hills and mid-size cities, seems like a place where farmers and urbanites should easily coexist. But not in late summer, when farmers burn bluegrass fields to clear stubble and stimulate seed production.

The conflict is most intense in Spokane, where clean air activists have long claimed that the clouds of smoke pose a major health problem. Last September, for example, Alexandria Heisel, a 3-year-old with cystic fibrosis, was hospitalized because the smoke aggravated her disease, says Patricia Hoffman, a Spokane resident. "The grass industry doesn't want to talk about her - and about the (hundreds of) others who suffer and pay each year," Hoffman says.

But now, it has no choice. In March, the state Department of Ecology announced a two-year phaseout of grass burning.

The debate over grass burning has raged since the 1960s, when farmers planted some 40,000 acres of Kentucky bluegrass and the Spokane area became the nation's leading producer of the crop. Until recently, farmers seemed to have the upper hand.

But the scales tipped toward city dwellers after Hoffman formed a citizens' group, Save Our Summers, last May. She and other members compiled a list of nearly 2,000 people whose asthma and respiratory problems worsen during the burning season. Then the Spokane County Medical Society and the American Lung Association pressured the state agency to look seriously at the adverse health effects of field smoke. New studies link particulates in the smoke to increased hospital admissions and respiratory distress. Finally, Spokane lung doctor Alan Whitehouse gave the Ecology Department a petition, signed by nearly 400 doctors, stating that field burning is a health hazard.

However, the decision wasn't easy, said the agency's director, Mary Riveland. "Grass seed growers, we know you are only trying to earn a living and you're not trying to hurt people," she said in her announcement to the industry. "But the cost is too high."

Farmers countered they were unfairly singled out by the state directive, which calls for a one-third reduction in the number of acres that can be burned this summer, and total elimination of the practice by 1998. "Should we also ban cars in Spokane because there's a carbon monoxide problem?" asked one grower in the Spokesman-Review.

Still, farmers weren't really surprised by the state's decision. At a February meeting with activists and doctors, they conceded they could cut burning to 23,500 acres over seven years. But many growers won't be able to adjust in two years, says John Cornwall, president of the Intermountain Grass Growers Association.

And there's an environmental benefit to bluegrass that shouldn't be overlooked, adds Cornwall: In a region notorious for soil loss, it's the only crop that builds it.

Like many cities and towns in the West, Spokane is changing, and farmers are feeling the pressure. New housing developments are encroaching on farms, and growers like Karl Felgenhauer, vice chairman of the Washington Wheat Commission, say urbanites and new arrivals from other states and regions don't understand or appreciate long-standing agricultural practices. "These Realtors sell lots by promising mountains and lakes, but they don't talk about smoke," the fifth-generation farmer says. Forcing Washington farmers to stop burning won't accomplish much, he adds. Smoke from fields in northern Idaho will continue to plague residents while Washington farmers get hit in the pocketbook.

The phaseout may force some Washington farmers to stop growing bluegrass altogether. Using federal and state money, researchers and growers are scrambling to find a market for bluegrass straw, which must be mechanically removed when it's not burned. But with the nearest shipping terminal 400 miles away, in Portland, Ore., transportation costs would likely eat up any profits. "I have my feelers out," says Felgenhauer, "but if it's not economical, I'll have to get out."

Washington's decision has ignited the fight of clean-air activists in Idaho, who have been stymied for eight years by the state's strong right-to-farm laws. The Clean Air Coalition, a grassroots group in northern Idaho, plans to track smoke plumes this summer and sue growers for damages. Despite their political clout, says Harvey Richman, attorney for the Clean Air Coalition, Idaho farmers will have to adjust to demographics too: "You just can't do this anymore. The population has changed, and so must the farming."

For more information, contact the Clean Air Coalition, P.O. Box 928, Sandpoint, ID 83864 (208/264-5344); Intermountain Grass Growers Association, East 8610 Fleming Road, Fairfield, WA 99012 (509/291-4371); Save Our Summers, P.O. Box 142043, Spokane, WA 99217 (509/928-2417); Washington Association of Wheat Growers, 109 E. First Ave., Ritzville, WA 99169 (509/659-0610).

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