Farmers burning to prepare fields

Friday, June 23, 2006
A farmer harvests wheat Thursday sough of Benton on Highway 61.

SIKESTON - The smoke signals are going up across the Bootheel, notifying everyone it is that time of year when farmers are burning off their wheat fields in preparation for the next round of crops.

The fields are burned to eliminate the left-over straw and residue from the wheat harvest. Most farmers use this method to prepare their fields for soybeans.

Although the burning method is effective, it does cause some undesirable side-effects.

Lt. Jim McNiell of the Missouri Highway Patrol said the smoke from the fields can cause hazardous driving conditions.

"We have had some wrecks in the past which were partly due to the smoke that traveled over the highway and caused a vision hazard," said McNiell. "I commend the farmers though. As of late, we have had no serious accidents due to the burning. The farmers know how to burn and have done a great job of keeping the fire under control."

The farmers put much effort into ensuring the safety of motorists said Trey Taylor, manager of the Delta Growers Association.

"The farmers try to burn their wheat fields when wind is appropriate, the only problems come when the wind unexpectedly shifts directions or picks up," said Taylor. "In those cases, the farmers have individuals flag the road if smoke may be a problem."

Besides monitoring the weather, farmers plow the edges of their fields to ensure the fire does not burn too close to the highway, said Taylor.

"This year we have not had any major complaints with motorists. We have actually had more complaints about the non-healthy conditions resulting from the smoke in the air than anything else," said McNiell.

Dr. Robert Sacha, an allergist in Cape Girardeau, said he has seen quite a few health problems arise from the burning fields.

"We have had many asthmatic patients or allergy suffers who cannot stay outside when the fields are burning," said Sacha. "Whenever you are burning something like that, it is going to have a negative effects on a person's health."

Due to this reaction, some farmers are utilizing no-till planting, which is a method of planting seeds into the leftover straw.

"The problem with no-till planting," said Taylor, "is that whenever the wheat crop yields high amounts, as it did this year, there is too much straw for the soybeans to get a good stand in."

Plowing is another option for farmers, but it is very inefficient according to Taylor.

"The trouble with straw is that plowing is not an option because you can't plow that stuff under and plant on top, there is too much." said Taylor. "Plus fuel prices are so high that it would cost much more money to do it."

However, there is good news for allergy suffers and annoyed motorists, the burning is almost over. Taylor said that approximately three-fourths of the farmers who are burning their fields have already done so.

"Burning is the most efficient way to farm for those who planted wheat," said Taylor. "And I know from experience that the farmers who feel burning is necessary take into consideration all of the needed precautions and are as safe with burning as possible."

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