06/27/08 — Smoke no cause for alarm

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Smoke no cause for alarm

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 27, 2008 1:46 PM

The billowing plumes of thick dark smoke that climb like thunderheads into the skies over Wayne County are enough to send folks racing to report what they think can only be a big fire. But more than likely at this time of the year, the smoke will be from an age-old farm practice -- burning off wheat fields after they have been harvested.

"Every time this year we get several calls a day about farmers burning off the fields," said Delbert Edwards, Wayne County communications supervisor. "We know it is coming."

"We have a lot of folks here who were not born here or who were not raised in a rural setting so they are not familiar with farmers burning off the fields," Edwards said.

Wheat is planted early and harvested in late spring. Most farmers immediately replant the same fields with soybeans, a practice known as "double-cropping."

Edwards said he has not noticed any increase in the number of calls this year even though the amount of land devoted to wheat in the county is up by about 3,000 acres.

"We usually end up dispatching a fire department to check out the calls and many end up just being wheat field fires. We let the departments know what the callers tell us and the departments have enough experience to know that it is likely to be a wheat field."

In some cases, people drive by a wheat field fire and call it in as a field or woods fire, Edwards said.

Edwards said he is not aware of any regulations that would govern the practice and that farmers are not required to alert his office when they burn off a field.

He said that occasionally the wind will shift or the fire will jump the firebreak around the field and spark a grass or woods fire.

"But that is not common," he said.

"We are one of the leading wheat-producing counties in the state," said Wayne County Agricultural Extension Agent Kevin Johnson. "Wheat prices were so high that a lot of wheat was planted."

The acreage increased from 25,000 to 28,000, he said.

Farmers burn off the leftover wheat straw so that they can plant the soybeans without having to re-plow the field, a practice known as no-till farming.

"The straw can be so thick that the equipment they have can't get through," Johnson said.

However, he said it appears that the trend could be moving away from the practice of burning off the fields.

Newer equipment can break through the straw and leaving more ground cover helps retain moisture for the soybeans. Also, Johnson said he has noticed that more farmers are baling the straw.

"The public doesn't like the smoke, especially if you live next door and there are so many more houses in the county," he said. "In a few more years I don't think we will see that much (field burning) at all."