'Mighty murky pillars'.
This week's smoky skies in the Willamette Valley stirred memories among people who have lived in this part of Oregon for a decade or more. August used to be field burning season. Grass seed farmers would set fire to the stubble remaining in their fields after harvest, sending massive plumes of smoke skyward. The burns were timed to occur when atmospheric conditions allowed the smoke to disperse, but sometimes the winds would shift. Eugene and the southern Willamette Valley often got the worst of it, with cinders falling from the ocher air.
In 2009, the Legislature narrowly approved a bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, to ban field burning. The ban was intensely controversial, but by then the practice was already on its way out. Grass seed farmers once torched 250,000 acres every summer. By 1998, the burned acreage was down to 40,000.
The turning point came on Aug. 3, 1988, when smoke from a grass seed fire south of Albany blinded drivers on Interstate 5, causing a chain reaction of crashes that killed seven people and injured 37 more. The Register- Guard reprinted its front-page report of the incident as one of its 150th anniversary "Pages From Our Part" on Aug. 31. The tragedy was an accident - but it was an industrial accident caused by a particular agricultural practice. Field burning, long resented on aesthetic grounds, increasingly came under attack as a matter of health and public safety.
Grass seed farmers defended field burning as an essential means of clearing stubble and straw from their fields in a way that reduced insects and disease. Years of research into other methods of sanitizing fields had failed to yield a practical alternative. In the years since World War II the grass seed industry had grown into an Oregon success story, producing seed sold all over the world. The crop was Oregon's 9th most valuable agricultural commodity in 1984, and its producers had clout in Salem to match.
But as the population of the Willamette Valley grew, the balance of power shifted from those who burned the fields to those who bore the effects. Then-Rep. Sara Gelser, D- Corvallis, speaking in favor of Holvey's bill, recalled that on a particularly smoky day in 1974, legendary runner Steve Prefontaine suffered respiratory irritation so severe that he coughed up blood.
In 1971, author Ken Kesey wrote an essay in The Register-Guard describing field burning smoke that "rose into mighty murky pillars, into spectacular thunderheads all knobby and ponderous, like great yellow-brown puffed lips or punk knots swelling from an injured land, then all the separate pillars joined into one great bruise that began creeping the width and length of the valley."
Those days are gone, and good riddance. But the grass seed industry did not vanish with them. Doomsday predictions to the contrary, the state Department of Agriculture reports that in 2016, grass seed was the state's No. 5 agricultural commodity, with a value of $436 million. The rank of grass seed among Oregon agricultural commodities has risen despite the conversion of land to other crops such as filberts, and despite a glut of grass seed that lingered after the recession that began in 2008. Grass seed is a big industry without field burning.
The Willamette Valley can still trap smoke from forest fires, as this week's unhealthful conditions showed. Smoky days may become more common as fuels build up in nearby forests and climate change brings drier, hotter summers. But Oregon has given up the idea that, in Kesey's words, "clean grass seed is a good swap for clean summer skies." The Willamette Valley, it turns out, can have both.