Straw - Leave it in the ground

Author(s): 
Chrys Ostrander

A recent regionally-produced public radio 'news' story, "Coming Soon: Eastern Washington Tree-free Paper Pulp" reported "A company in eastern Washington is developing a new way to make paper pulp without trees. The mill will instead use a source abundant to the area: straw. Woodless pulp is a growing trend in the milling industry. Columbia Pulp is building a new facility near Dayton, Washington, in the heart of the state’s wheat and alfalfa country. Farmers used to view wheat straw as waste. They’d burn it, which would create thousands of tons of air pollution each year."

The reporter stated that farmers used to consider wheat straw a waste product and that they used to burn it. Neither of those statements is true. It sounds to me as if the reporter parroted the PR message of the folks promoting making paper from straw without approaching it with enough of the critical thinking that we rely on reporters to apply to their craft. Too often, some local public radio 'news' stories sound more like advertisements than news. This is an example of that.

What happened was, eastern Washington farmers began to view straw as another revenue source, but at their peril as well as ours.

The straw is the farmers' topsoil in another form. What farmers used to do with it is work it back into the soil where it breaks down releasing nitrogen and micro-nutrients back into the soil. As it breaks down, in the form of decomposing organic matter, it is food for soil flora and fauna (e.g. microbes, earth worms, fungi, etc.) while improving the soil's ability to absorb and retain moisture as well as preventing the soil from blowing or washing away.

I lived in the middle of wheat-growing country in Lincoln County for 20 years. I never saw farmers burn their wheat straw intentionally. I do not believe that was or is a common practice. Field burning was common in grass seed-growing fields, but was done for other purposes than disposal of the straw until the practice was largely halted because of public pressure. Instead, grain farmers would till the straw back into the soil. Their subsequent application of ammonium nitrate fertilizer (any nitrogen fertilizer, like animal manure, will work similarly) would then assist in breaking the straw down-- back into topsoil. To imply that it is a common practice for wheat farmers to burn their straw is laughably erroneous. Some PR firm was hired by the straw pulp industry to come up with wording to sell this practice to a gullible public, so they invented a "straw man." No one likes field burning. Tell them 'if the farmers make paper from their straw, they won't have to burn it'. But they don't burn it, you see?

Now, many farmers used to (and still do) bale up some of their straw to sell as straw bales. Nothing wrong with that, if done within reason. There is a good local market for straw bales (visit any feed store), but I was dismayed when, back in the '90's I began to see farmers raking up every scrap of straw from their fields and baling it up into huge bales as big as pick-up trucks (4'x4'x8') and watched as these were loaded onto semi trucks and hauled away. Not the kind of straw bales you see in feed stores. Apparently, there were some new industries emerging for whom the straw was a raw material. Making fiber board for construction was one such industry, there were others, and now the paper-making kick. WSU was perfectly willing to help with research and development of these topsoil-robbing industries. What farmer wouldn't like to have another revenue stream from what some might have viewed as a 'byproduct?' Well, the answer to that question is, an educated farmer who sees the straw's true value in its long-term fertility- and tilth-enhancing properties, not the short-term financial gain to be had. You might as well plow up your soil and have it hauled off in trucks if you adhere to the short-term gain model, which, unfortunately, too many of our eastern Washington farmers fall victim to.

Back in the '90's, the increased exporting of straw from eastern Washington farms was also news. In one news story I heard, probably on KPBX, the rationalization for hauling off the straw was that it interfered with the farmers' tilling, harrowing and seed-planting equipment. Nope, $$ was the only real reason. Maybe it was a problem for some equipment, but I would venture to guess the farmers were just too impatient to wait for the straw to break down enough before wanting to go back into the field and ready it for the next crop. The straw is the farmers' topsoil in another form. We all lose when our region's topsoil is hauled away. The loss will catch up to us. Mark my words.

Lucky for the chemical farmers that they can just grow their grains in spent, lifeless soil as long as they apply enough artificial nutrients in the form of fossil-fuel-based chemical fertilizers and still get a crop to sell. Lucky for the farmers that they have an arsenal of chemical pesticides to apply since the anemic plants growing in dust are more susceptible to pests than those grown in a healthy, living soil rich in organic matter.

Farmers are much better off, and our future food security and climate will be much better off, if farmers today incorporate as much organic matter back into their soil as they can with the goal of approaching 8%, not hauling off every last scrap to make an extra buck.

Edition: 
September 1, 2017