Growers take late start & field burning limits in stride
High quality Oregon grass seed will always be in demand.
Nearly all Oregon farmers can finally take advantage of warm temperatures and dry skies as summer has arrived, albeit weeks overdue. For Oregon's $256 million dollar grass seed industry, the workday is nearly round the clock as the crop is generally ready for harvest. Despite the late season, a large inventory carried over from the past couple of years, and changes in Oregon's field burning law, the grass seed industry remains one of the state's most significant agricultural sectors.
"The crop is about two weeks late as the cool, wet spring combined with the wet weather in July to push back the harvest," says Roger Beyer, executive director of the Oregon Seed Council. "The crop looks good in the field, but nothing matters if it isn't harvested."
A late start, according to Beyer, is difficult to recover from unless the dry weather extends well into September.
"There is an axiom that a late harvest is a good yielding harvest, and this may hold true for late varieties of grasses that are just now being swathed," says grower George Pugh of Shedd. "The first fields have been all over the board, but what I am hearing and experiencing has been generally lighter than normal yields. The seed industry's inventories have been re-balancing the past couple of years. A light crop may cause some shortages in some varieties. Hopefully, the marketplace will compensate farmers for reduced yields."
Just a few years ago, grass seed had the second highest production value among all agricultural commodities in Oregon. But very few crops have dropped in value the past six years as much as grass seed. Its value has declined nearly 50 percent since 2008, from a high of $510 million that year to just $256 million last year. Like the nursery industry- Oregon's top ranked commodity- the recession and the corresponding housing market slump have reduced demand and sales. A surplus of grass seed has also led to a big reduction in acreage planted.
In 2008, the number of acres planted in fescue in Oregon was about 195,000. Last year, that dropped to about 136,000 acres. Also in 2008, more than 226,000 acres were planted in ryegrass. Last year, plantings were down to 203,000 acres. During that stretch, many Willamette Valley growers replaced grass seed crops with wheat.
"I believe the conversion of grass seed acres to other crops has slowed somewhat," says Pugh. "Not all acres are capable of economically producing grain or other crops without the added expense of tile drainage and irrigation. But profitability is slow to return to the grass seed market and everyone is looking to diversify to the extent their ground allows."
Total acreage in grass seed crops is down again this year. Since its peak in 2005, acreage has dropped about 30 percent.
For years, grass seed growers relied on the practice of field burning to eliminate straw residues and rid fields of weeds, insects, and diseases. At one time, nearly a quarter-million acres in the Willamette Valley went up in smoke. The Oregon Legislature phased down the amount of acres that could be burned each year, finally banning the practice last year in the relatively populated south Willamette Valley. The only open field burning now allowed is in an area known as the Silverton Hills in east Marion County, where steep terrain and certain identified species still require thermal cleansing. In 2006, nearly 50,000 acres were allowed to burn. Last year- the first year of the general ban on field burning- only 13,800 acres were burned, all in the Silverton Hills.
Traditionally, the Fourth of July signaled the beginning of the field burning season, which ran well into September. This year, with the limited acreage and the late season, the first plumes in the Silverton Hills appeared just this week. Once again, the Oregon Department of Agriculture oversees the burning.
"We still make the decisions on when to allow field burning in those areas where it is still available," says John Byers, manager of ODA's Smoke Management Program. "We always look for the best possible weather conditions that will allow open field burning. It continues to be our goal to allow the growers an opportunity to burn while, at the same time, protecting the general public from smoke impacts."
Just like last year, ODA can expect a few phone calls when smoke is in the air in Eugene and other populated areas of the south Willamette Valley, even though field burning will not be taking place nearby. Forest fires and other burning activities not involving grass seed fields often get mistaken by the public.
"Remember, we no longer burn in the south Willamette Valley- primarily most of Linn County, and all of Lane and Benton counties," says Byers. "If you see smoke in those areas, it is not related to field burning."
How is the industry coping with the changes in law?
"Grass seed farmers regret the loss of a valuable tool, but have moved on to doing whatever they have to do to continue to produce a viable crop,' says Pugh. "We have increased straw chopping capacity which, while requiring more horse power and fuel, does keep our carbon and nutrients on the field and still allows perennial grass crops to produce seed. At the same time, we are improving the habitat for our main pests- weeds, voles, and slugs. The result is an increased reliance on pesticides."
Annual ryegrass straw has also been utilized in the export market as cattle feed. While that market returns few dollars to the farm, it does provide a way to dispose of something that had been burned in the past.
Oregon is still the world leader in production of cool season grass seed with more than 95 percent of the dollars generated by the crop coming from other states and countries. The quality and consistency of Oregon grass seed production has bolstered the state's sterling reputation. Despite the challenges and changes over the past few years, Oregon grass seed remains a key industry and economic driver.
For more information, contact John Byers at (503) 986-4718 or Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.
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