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This article was published 20/11/2009 (4610 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
RM of CARTIER -- When smoke from burning stubble gets in our eyes -- and lungs -- city folk want it stopped.
Whether at home, or driving through the country, people see roaring flames and smoke billowing up and wonder why farmers turn their fields into something resembling hell every fall. The smoke wafts across the city, forcing people with breathing problems to either stay indoors or, in the worst cases, go to the closest emergency room.
But a few kilometres out here in farm country, when you actually stand in a field, you can hear from farmers why they do it.
Or at least you try to. You know stubble burning is a hot-button issue when a fiery farmer, pitchfork in hand, comes running through the smoke and flames across a field within sight of Winnipeg to order a reporter off his land.
Turns out, at the same time the farmer was raking his wheat thatch into rows to burn, the provincial government was moving to turn back the calendar and potentially make it illegal to do what he was doing.
Normally, stubble-burning is not a problem this late in the year. Normally, we'd have a decent summer with harvesting earlier in the fall and any necessary stubble-burning completed weeks ago. Normally, the fields outside the city -- like the lawns within the city -- would be under a blanket of snow by now.
But this year wasn't normal. A later-than-usual harvest has led to a later-than-usual stubble-burning season -- a stubble-burning season which wouldn't have existed if the fields weren't still clear of snow.
It's because of this longer-than-usual fall-like weather, that the province decided late Thursday to extend the deadline to apply for a permit to burn stubble from Nov. 15 to Dec. 4. It doesn't prevent farmers from burning, but it puts the decision to allow burning back into the hands of the province.
Burning at night is banned all through the year.
Brad Rasmussen, who farms 5,000 acres in this municipality with his brother and son, said "I only burn when absolutely necessary."
But Rasmussen, who also sits as one of two Keystone Agricultural Producers representatives on a provincial stubble-burning committee, said there are both economic and agricultural reasons for burning in southern Manitoba.
Crouching down on one of Rasmussen's wheat fields, long after combines and other machines have taken the wheat off the fields and left 10 cm pieces of golden stubble standing straight up, he points to the ground where the rest of the stubble is matted flat.
"This soil won't dry because the sun won't get through this," Rasmussen said.
"This would be OK in Saskatchewan, where it is dry, but out here our soil is too wet. It's probably because of our clay soil.
"It will compost, but it will cost you money. It's long-term good for the soil, but short-term pain.
"You'd have the possibility of not seeding next year."
Nearby, Rasmussen points to a field where flax was harvested.
"Flax is linen -- you can't work that into the soil," he said.
"You can work wheat stubble in. The (straw board) plant in Elie was great for us. They'd take half or 60 per cent of our straw. It's too bad it didn't work."
Rasmussen said farmers weigh both finances and their soil when they burn.
"They're saving money when they burn," he said.
"It also kills some of the weed seeds. It helps germinate because the sun hits the soil.
"And when the soil is ready, you'll be able to seed right away in the spring," he said.
Rasmussen said there is an art to burning. Too much and it harms the land. Just right leaves bits of stubble still sticking up in many places.
"When a field goes completely black, you lose your wind protection," he said.
"You have to burn it, but you have to leave some stubble. Look over there," he said, pointing to a field that had patches of black but lots of stubble still sticking up.
"He's trying to save his soil."
Rasmussen said after burning, farmers then can turn over the soil with the remaining stubble with machinery. Once is good, twice is better.
"The later you seed, the smaller your yield. With a field you're turning over once, you'll be seeding later."
Rasmussen said once the stubble has been burned, it will cost farmers about $7 to $8 per acre each time they turn over their soil before winter. He's not sure how much it would cost if they turned over unburned fields.
On a 5,000-acre operation like Rasmussen's, that's a cost of around $35,000 to $40,000 annually. In a profession where crop prices are low and expenses are high, that's a lot.
"If things were perfect, we would never burn," he said.
Rasmussen said the permit the province has farmers fill out is detailed, including having them put in which way the wind has to blow before they can light a match in the field.
"It's not carte blanche just because they give you a permit," he said.
"It's a plan to burn your waste material without affecting anyone's lives."
The organization that represents farmers also asked them to think before starting a fire.
At the same time the province extended the period to get burning permits, Keystone Agricultural Producers put out a statement saying "farmers must use good judgment when burning."
KAP vice-president Rob Brunel said, "We know the wet weather over this past season did not allow some farmers time to incorporate crop residue back into the soil and that environmental conditions have made it necessary to burn.
"As farmers, we are sympathetic to the concerns of those in areas that may be affected by stubble burning and we don't want lingering smoke to result."
KAP also urged farmers to make sure their fires are supervised at all times.
But a farmer northwest of Elie must not have got that memo.
Flames up to 10 metres high were raging in a drainage ditch along a road with no one, except for a reporter and photographer, watching it burn.
"That's not good," was all Rasmussen would say about that fire.
But Rasmussen said farmers do have to burn drainage ditches, or vegetation will plug them.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.