The Literal Landscape
The Burning Fields
In July, following a business trip to the city of Portland, I stole a Friday afternoon to visit my in-laws some two hours south in Eugene. It's a fairly straight shot down Interstate 5, through the center of the fertile Willamette Valley, nestled between Oregon's Coastal Range to the west and the Cascades to the east. At some points, especially south of Salem, the thickly forested foothills of both ranges seem nearly touchable by hand. They slope like giant, fir-covered loaves of bread, delicious as they rise and meet the taller peaks; or wash, sometimes abruptly, into the flat valley divided by the smooth Willamette River.
While I'm aware of the quality of the hops and grapes flourishing in the northern half of the valleyOregon is famous for its locally crafted beer and wine because of the combination of these crops and the clean Cascade waterit wasn't until I saw the signs for nursery growers and grass farms, approaching the town of Albany, that I learned of the valley's largest agricultural businesses. And it wasn't until I crested a small hill at 75 miles per hour and the sky turned dark that I saw, in the distance but closing fast, one of the oldest and most controversial practices for the grass growers: field burning.
The sky appeared not only to take on the color of blackened steel but also its weight as thick, yellow-gray plumes of smoke rose from adjacent fields as far as I could see. For the next half hour, as the rusting guard rails and shoulder-high weeds of the median whirred past, I lost my orientation. Suddenly I was on the barren playas of Tierra del Fuego, the broiling ground belching huge clouds of sulfurous gases into the heavy atmosphere. As I cleared one fire so close I could almost feel its heat, and rolled down my window to test, another would appear. The lush green foothills not long ago in plain site had become replaced by haze as blue as car exhaust in winter. The interstate curved slightly, projecting abrupt, prehistoric views of burning fields. My wide-open eyes nearly expected great flying reptiles to swoop from the sky and carry one of the interstate's cars, perhaps my own, back into the suffocating night of the clouds.
I was so amazed and my eyes so confused that finally I had to pull off the freeway and creep slowly into the parking lot of a service station abutting a field. I closed my eyes but the images remainedthe eyes behind my eyes showing me that what I had seen was in fact real. After a few minutes I pulled out my camera, slipped through a fence, and shuffled into the field. Beyond a long hedgerow, black smoke crept into the sky like the aftereffects of a successful bomb raid. I snapped a few pictures, dropped the camera in the car, and walked to the service station.
"The smoke?" an older man with a well-worn ball cap said to me as I wandered in, obviously a bit dazed.
"Uh, yeah " I said, returning to the moment.
"It's an annual event around here," he said. "Burning the fields to prepare for the next grass crop ."
I grabbed a soda and headed back to the car, my camera now switched on and resting in my lap. After merging onto the interstate I drifted into the left lane, held my camera high, and while watching the road precariously snapped a series of photographs of the closest burning field. Even with my eyes and my mind's eye in agreement, I needed tangible proof.
In 1997, Oregon seed growers produced nearly 640 million pounds of grass seed on 439,000 acres of cropland. The seed was worth more than $324 million. Nearly all of the seed is produced in the Willamette Valleyabout 400,000 acres produce grass and clover seeds out of 995,000 arable acres. The top producing counties are all in the valley, including sizable production just outside of Portland in Clackamas and Washington Counties.
Field burning, then, often occurs very near the state's largest metropolitan areas: Portland, Salem, and Eugene-Springfield. In fact, while burning is generally not allowed on weekends, during summer and fall weekdays there is only a half-mile no-burn buffer along the valley's major roadways, including Interstate 5, U.S. Highways 20 and 26, and Oregon Highway 99.
Even though the black and churning smoke along the interstate appeared, to this visitor, as close to the dawn of time as I could imagine, Oregon's Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Quality closely regulate field burning. In the last decade, the number of burns has decreased both because permits for burnable acreage have been limited and because the price of grass seed has been high. The higher the price, the more farmers can pay for alternative methods of eliminating leftover straw, controlling weeds and disease, and replenishing nutrients.
In the 1980s, however, "before the spotted owl and the salmon, [when] field burning was 'the' environmental issue in Oregon," according to plant physiologist Tom Chastain of Oregon State University, field burning reached epidemic proportions. In 1987 more than 200,000 acres were burned. On September 14 of that year, heavy smoke settled on Salem and Portland, resulting in hundreds of complaints and dozens of emergency room visits. Just a year later, on August 3, the results were much worse: A blaze ignited by a farmer outside Albany jumped the firebreak and torched a field adjacent to Interstate 5. Noxious black smoke drifted across the high-speed roadway, causing a 23-car pileup that left 38 people injured and seven dead.
As many as 315,000 acreswell over 80 percent of the grass cropland at the timehave been burned in a single season. In 1969, during a season in which 225,000 acres were burned and over 5,000 complaints received, a dooming cloud of smoke blanketed Eugene and Springfield on "Black Tuesday," August 12. The Oregon governor issued a temporary emergency ban on burning after hearing comparisons to the last days of Pompeii.
Today, only 65,000 acres per year may be burned, and the grass seed industry, with support from other agricultural and environmental interests, is evaluating options for decreasing burning. The alternatives, writes Andy Duncan for Oregon's Agricultural Progress, are viable but more expensive, and include "bale and flail," "bale and vacuum," and "total straw management."
With the bail and flail method, most of the straw remaining after harvest is removed, often exported as far away as Japan to feed livestock. Farm equipment flails, or chops, and disperses the remaining straw, after which farmers apply chemicals to control weeds and disease-inducing pests. With bale and vacuum, straw is also baled and removed. A large vacuum is then used to suck up leftover straw, seeds, and disease organisms.
Total straw management is the most recent development. Unlike the previous two methods, farmers leave all remaining straw on the grass fields, then flail it several times to disperse it across the field so the new crop is not smothered. The new straw mulch also helps control weeds.
While the alternatives are promising, they are not without their own risks: "We've replaced field burning with intense chemical use," says George Pugh, a grass grower in the southern Willamette Valley. "I'm sure that will be more and more controversial because of water quality concerns. That'll be the next thing people look at us about."
By the time I reached the home of my in-laws, I had feverishly stopped the car nearly a half-dozen times to snap photos or simply watch the billowing smoke consummate the low clouds. My brother-in-law, who has lived in Eugene nearly three years, didn't believe my highway tale of raging fires and thick gray plumes until my father-in-law and his wife, who just drove down from Corvallis, provided additional support.
Our discussion at dinnera large backyard bar-b-que the likes of which my brother-in-law loves to orchestrate when relatives arrivewas like the rising and falling clouds of the day's earlier fires. And like the flaring and brilliant mesquite seasoning the steaks, the discussion left us with more questions than we could answer: What if the grass market turns, and alternative methods are no longer cost-effective? Who is responsible for ensuring quick emergency response, and related recovery, when the fires get out of hand? What will be the long-term impacts of increased use of pesticides and fertilizer? Is the grass seed industry truly the valley's most sustainable pursuit?
But like the fires themselves, the conversation soon died down as we cooled the coals and caught up on our own, less exciting lives.
That evening, as the clouds unraveled to reveal the deep and starry night, I slipped out of my shoes, let my eyes adjust to the darkness, and walked barefoot onto the lush green lawn. My feet sunk into the countless, forgiving blades as a cricket chirped and brown moths battered themselves against the dim porch light. Somewhere in the distance, barely audible, a tractor trailer loaded with burlap sacks of grass seed pressed its way onto the smooth ribbon of interstate, heading north. And farther still, the freshly risen sun brought morning to a garden on the outskirts of Paris as its nurturing light washed the dew from the thin and reaching leaves of Oregon orchardgrass.
I can almost see it now.
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