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To burn or not to burn

Washington state farmers use Ecology, Ag Burning Task Force to answer that question

April 2019
By Trista Crossley


For more than two decades, the Ag Burning Task Force has been quietly going about its business helping keep the air over Eastern Washington clear. They’ve had to balance the impacts of air pollution on public health with the needs of growers who rely on burning as part of a successful farming operation. These days, maintaining that balance is more difficult thanks to a wildfire season that is starting earlier with bigger, more intense fires.

The issue of ag burning came to a head in the early 1990s when the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) was sued over air quality by an environmental advocacy group called Save Our Summers. The task force was established as part of the state’s Clean Air Act with the goal of reducing air pollution from ag burning. Back then, hundreds of thousands of acres across the Pacific Northwest were burned each year. Cereal grains and bluegrass seed were two of the biggest crops in Eastern Washington that relied on burning to clear stubble. These days, an average of 120,000 acres are burned annually, according to Kary Peterson, Ecology’s ag burn unit supervisor.

The task force, which is made up of clean air advocates, state agency staff, farmers, academia and agricultural stakeholders, meets twice a year. The task force is responsible for setting the fees farmers pay to burn; developing best management practices (BMPs) for reducing air pollution from ag burning; and identifying and funding research for alternatives to ag burning.

“One of the main things at Ecology is public health and clean air, and what a lot of people outside of Ecology or in different agencies don’t understand is that farmers, regulators, researchers…everybody wants clean air. Everybody breathes air. Even the guy who burns is a clean air advocate,” Peterson said.

Most of the ag burning in Washington takes place in the higher rainfall zones or in irrigated areas. Besides cereal crops, orchards and vineyards also utilize burning to help clear residue. Burns generally happen in the spring and fall. Ecology is responsible for issuing burn permits and making the daily burn decision. That burn decision is based on weather forecasts, as well as any other factors, such as wildfires, that might degrade air quality.

Ecology works with the county conservation districts to issue burn permits. Permits are valid from six months to one year, depending on the type of permit issued. Ecology makes the daily burn decision and tries to post that decision by 9 a.m. seven days a week. Growers can call a telephone number to get the daily burn decision or can get it by email.

Dave Knight, the air quality manager for Ecology’s Eastern Region, said the number of complaints have dropped because the agency’s forecaster and meteorologist do a good job of predicting conditions for good burning, so the smoke isn’t as noticeable. Fewer acres being burned is another reason complaints are down. Peterson said that can be attributable to better agricultural equipment, such as seeders that can deal with heavy residue; direct seeding; and crop rotation tactics used by farmers. Then there’s the wildfire smoke, which can limit the number of days ag burning is permitted, as well as how many acres are burned.

“For us to complete our work and for farmers to complete their work, we try our darnedest to get them burned in between wildfire smoke episodes. We might get a day or two to clear out (from wildfire smoke), and we start burning again. But we have to be sensitive to what the public has been under. We normally try to burn away from populated areas as best we can. That part has been a real balancing act. I honestly think guys who burn, it’s not that they want to burn, it’s the way they farm, and for what they are going to grow they need to burn. They don’t burn for fun,” Peterson said.

Knight added that there’s currently a push for more prescribed fires on state and federal lands to try to head off future wildfires. Unfortunately, that puts more smoke into the air, and it’s one of the things the task force will need to consider going forward.

“DNR, Fish and Wildlife, national forest…we are going to have to learn how to share the air,” he said.

Another item that could have a big impact on ag burning and the task force is the new pulp plant in Starbuck, Wash. The plant uses wheat and alfalfa seed straw to make pulp. The pulp is sold to make a variety of papers products, and Knight said some farmers are choosing to bale their straw and sell it to the plant rather than burning it off.

While the number of acres being burned has dropped, Peterson doesn’t think field burning will ever completely go away. Besides clearing stubble, burning is also used as a pest and weed control method. That could be especially important if pests develop chemical resistance.

“Weeds aren’t resistant to fire,” he explained. “(Ag burning) is one of the tools in the toolbox that’s necessary under certain conditions.”

Research, funded by those fees, is a big part of what the Ag Burning Task Force does.

Since 1998, the task force has funded nearly $1.4 million in research projects. Most of the projects tend to focus on alternatives to burning. Projects are funded every two years, and Peterson said they have about $140,000 available this year. The task force determines which projects get funded. One of the more recent research projects investigated the benefits of the residue left on the fields after burning and how that residue impacted soil health.

Neither Knight nor Peterson foresee a time when the Ag Burning Task Force’s work isn’t relevant. As new crops and new practices are put into farmers’ rotations, some of them might utilize ag burning.

“As farming changes, those BMPs change, and they (the task force) are the folks that make sure the BMPs are good for clean air and for the farmer,” Peterson said. “The state of Washington has allowed hemp growing in some areas, and lo and behold, burning is one of the main ways to get rid of that residue. The task force was involved in our decision on what we are going to do on hemp fields.”

For more information on the Ag Burning Task Force, visit Ecology’s website.