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Arkansas Rice Industry To Form Field Burning Task Force

rice fields
Mickey Liaw

Plumes of smoke fill the autumn skies in the Delta as farmers burn row crop field refuse, and many complain about the side-effects of the smoke. Arkansas rice industry leaders have decided to form a task force to examine the issue, Arkansas Rice Federation Executive Director Lauren Waldrip Ward told Talk Business & Politics.

How many members the task force will have and when it will meet have not been determined, but it will include stakeholders from across the state’s agricultural industries and there will be communications with those who oppose field burning, she said.

“The primary goal is to draft management guidelines. … We want to educate our farmers about the best agricultural practices,” she said.

Arkansas rice farmers and stakeholders met at the Brinkley Convention Center on Tuesday (Nov. 7) for board meetings of the Arkansas Rice Council, Arkansas Rice Farmers and Arkansas Rice Federation. Members decided a task force was needed to study the issue. The task force will work with agriculture partners in forestry and conservation to consider a model already in place by the Arkansas Prescribed Fire Council’s voluntary smoke management guidelines for forest landowners, and private, state, and federal forestry agencies and companies. The goal will be to construct better guidelines.

Agricultural burning is nearly finished this year, but the group unanimously approved a motion to form the committee and explore ways to address the concern. Specifically, the task force will consider farmer burn plans and the reporting of prescribed burns to the Arkansas Forestry Commission Dispatch Center as part of voluntary smoke management guidelines, a process already in place for forest landowners. Many farmers practice good field burning techniques, but others need more education, Ward said.

Burning crop residue is a recommended crop management practice. Organic refuse is left after the harvest, and it needs to be removed to prepare fields for the next growing season. The refuse can also provide shelter for nuisance weeds and insects that can be detrimental to future crops. Fires can eliminate potential diseases. Fire isn’t always necessary, but it’s helpful in rice fields to manage problematic residue. Waiting on the residue to breakdown during winter can be a gamble. Winter conditions can slow breakdown and lead to increased tillage and delayed planting, resulting in increased production costs and lower yields in some cases. In fields that cannot rotate to crops other than rice, excessive remaining residue in the field can be detrimental to future rice crops. Fields can be “turned over” or plowed, but it expensive and it doesn’t ensure the weeds and insects will be killed.

Residents in many parts of the state, especially in Northeast Arkansas complain about the smoke that inundates the skies each fall. Smoke can cover roadways making travel hazardous, and it can impact those with respiratory disorders. Dr. Warren Skaug, a pediatrician in Jonesboro, said he’s noticed an increase in children with respiratory ailments in the fall, according to KAIT. Skaug spoke with legislators in Little Rock earlier this week to explain his concerns. He said many children can’t go outside and enjoy the fall weather because of the smoke. Skaug will host a meeting in Swifton on Nov. 18, and Ward said representatives from the rice industry will be there and they plan to work with Skaug.

“This is something the ag industry as a whole has acknowledged and is working to address collectively,” said Jeff Rutledge, chairman of the Arkansas Rice Federation. “Field burning is part of a complete crop management strategy and our growers want to ensure the continued quality of the airshed their families and neighbors breathe.”

Rice industry leaders are taking a lead role with this task force, but other row crops such as soybeans, corn, and wheat are burned. In any given year up to 40% of rice fields may be burned, but in other years it can be much less, Ward said. This year about 25% of rice fields were burned while, only 16% were burned last year.

“Our industry has repeatedly shown a willingness to adopt voluntary guidelines or best management practices as opposed to being subject to additional government regulations. Here our row crop industry is looking to the lessons that our forest landowners have learned in the past and we are all working together to find common sense solutions,” said Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward. “This is a perfect example of how we can accomplish more together than apart.”

Wes Ward is married to Lauren Waldrip Ward.

This story comes from the staff of Talk Business & Politics, a content partner with KUAR News. You can hear the weekly program on Mondays at 6:06 p.m.