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CRP mandate a burning concern

By MIKE CORN

Hays Daily News

In the semi-arid plains of northwest Kansas, fire never has been a farmer's best friend.

Instead, the widely held belief is that in the dry, windy reaches of western Kansas, fire simply can't be controlled.

That often is the case, with the vagaries of Mother Nature, her gale-force winds capable of howling through the countryside on a moment's notice.

But with 208,920 acres of northwest Kansas land -- the vast majority of it in eight counties -- in a Conservation Reserve Program that dictates burning at least once during the life of those 10- to 15-year set-aside contracts, it's a sure bet farmers will gain plenty of practice.

Most likely, in very short order.

As a result, much of the northwest Kansas sky will be filled with angry clouds of smoke as the dense grass is burned sometime before April 15.

CRP ground to be burned is, in a sense, stacked up -- the result a drought that just won't release its grip on parts of northwest Kansas.

Because of that drought, and the long-held opinion fires are bad, farmers and firefighters alike are objecting, arguing burning is not a good idea.

They instead are urging federal authorities to allow either light discing, baling or short term grazing to revitalize stands of grass in CRP.

Failing that, they argue, there could be many more instances like those of last week when thousands of acres of land in Gove, Graham and Decatur counties were scorched when good fires went bad, raging out of control.

Two massive fires in Gove County on March 12 prompted Commission Chairman Mahlon Tuttle to ban outside burning. That ban expired Tuesday, after rains dampened the area.

The next day, however, the National Weather Service at Goodland issued "red flag" warnings for much of northwest Kansas and recommended against burning throughout the area. Those "red flag" warnings continued through today.

The fires also prompted the Gove County Conservation District board to publicly voice its concerns about the burning requirement, urging people with similar concerns to write the Farm Service Agency, the federal agency responsible for CRP contracts.

To be sure, there have been CRP fields that have been burned successfully.

Without a hitch, Wallace County farmer Bill Mai burned a small patch of ground near Sharon Springs.

"It was a perfect burn," he said.

He's aware of the danger, however.

"The main thing is you've got to be extremely careful so you don't start a big fire," he said. "That forecast isn't always correct. The wind could change, and you have to be prepared."

* * *

Although it's not known exactly how much land will need to be burned, conservation agency employees have been busy completing hundreds of burn plans needed to comply with CRP regulations.

At the same time, some farmers are appealing to local FSA officials to grant them waivers.

One of them is 84-year-old Francis Jamison.

He and another Gove County farmer, R.W. Leighton, had started the fire that was to have burned nearly 800 acres of CRP ground south of Park. After starting a backfire, the wind came up and pushed the fire back over a fire break and into adjoining fields.

By the time the fire was done, more than 1,500 acres were black, the fire burning an empty residence, a corral and much of a shelter belt. At about the same time, another fire broke out in Gove County to the west, scorching another 1,500 acres.

Those fires have become the rallying cry for farmers hoping to halt the burning mandate.

"I'm going to Hoxie to talk to them," Jamison said of asking for a waiver on the burning requirement. "What they'll say, I don't know."

Jamison had 640 acres of Gove County ground last week.

"Our problem is we have five more fields to burn," he said.

While they're all small, he no longer thinks burning is the answer.

"I think we had it figured out," he said of burning the CRP land in Gove County. "It just didn't work."

Now, he thinks even more fires could erupt.

* * *

Dennis Mote, executive director of the Farm Service Agency offices in Wallace and Sherman counties, recognizes farmers are wary of burning.

"It's something you don't feel comfortable doing in the best of circumstances," he said. "That's part of the process to get everyone educated.

Safety is paramount, said Rod Winkler, the Manhattan-based FSA program specialist who oversees CRP in Kansas.

Dry weather, he said, can be enough of a reason to delay burning -- at least until conditions improve.

And farmers can disc around fields to help ensure a firebreak, he said.

"You're not really killing the grass," Winkler said of discing. "It will survive. You almost have to plow it up to kill it."

Roger Tacha, a resource conservationist at Colby, has been working on dozens of burn plans for farmers. He's also conducted burn schools for farmers who need to burn CRP fields.

"This fall and this winter, I've probably done 200 plans," he said, "maybe more."

Generally, burning can be done through the first of May, but CRP regulations only allow it through April 15.

To burn a field, farmers need to wait for all the right conditions, such as temperature, soil moisture and wind speed.

And, he said, they should check the fire forecast issued each day by the weather service.

Tacha agreed safety is the first priorty.

"Burning is a new thing," he said. "People are apprehensive about it. The comfort level will get better as they do this."

* * *

Leighton's comfort level with burning, however, is about as low as it can get.

"This is textbook of what can and will go wrong," Leighton said as he surveyed damage to a farmstead that was in the path of a fire that raged out of control in Gove County. "We did it like we were supposed to.

"I don't think it should be burned," he said of CRP.

He suggested mowing and baling the fields instead.

Leighton struggled to stop the fire's advance, but flames swept over the tractor that he was using to disc a firebreak.

"Everyone thinks this is the most economical way to do this," he said, "until something like this happens."

It's just too dry, said Mark Coberly, a farmer, Gove County Commissioner and someone who hauled water to fight the fire.

"We haven't had a decent rain since October," he said a day after the fire roared through the county. "Drier than hell.

"I think the government made a real error in requiring farmers to burn CRP -- especially in an arid county like this. It just doesn't work, vividly evidenced by what happened yesterday."

Coberly has some land enrolled in the program that requires burning.

"I'm just not going to burn it," he said. "You're begging for trouble."

When he enrolled the land, he said he told FSA officials he wouldn't be burning it. They gave him the names of people who would be considered professionals.

"So far, I haven't found anyone willing to do it," he said.

Coberly had no criticism of the fires that burned out of control, blaming it on the weather.

"It just came up all of a sudden," he said. "One minute it's calm, and the next minute it's blowing out of the north at 100 mph."

Fires create their own winds, said Quinter Fire Chief Roy Litfin.

"Even if it's a nice day, some of this stuff is so tall it creates its own firestorm," he said. "It creates its own wind. It creates its own firestorm, I call it."

Litfin said he understands farmers are being told to burn, but being confronted with problems and uncertainty.

"And we're saying, 'Ah, can't you find another way to do this?' " he said of asking FSA to allow ways to manage CRP.

* * *

For Jamison, the out-of-control fire and the need to burn additional grass makes for plenty of uncertainty for him.

Jamison said he started enrolling his farmland in the popular set-aside program as a way to slow down and perhaps retire.

"I couldn't stand loafing," he admits now. "So I got a job running the car wash."

Jamison said he knows his farm liability insurance policy will cover what damages resulted from his attempt at burning.

"You should be able to handle a fire," he said. "I didn't foresee this happening. It's just one of those things."

But what Jamison will do if he can't get a waiver is uncertain.

"If you don't meet your contract, they can recall your money," he said. "If you've gotten it four to five years, you'd have to sell your land to pay it back."

Special-projects coordinator Mike Corn can be reached at (785) 628-1081, Ext. 129, or by e-mail at mcorn@dailynews.net.



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