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Agriculture is key to our state's economy, culture, and history. It is our leading industry with roughly $16 billion contributed to the Natural State economy each year. With rice, soybeans, cotton, corn, cattle, and wheat, we at Arkansas Public Media pledge to report on issues that impact not just this industry, but this leading way of life in our state.

Field Burns Fire Up Rice Industry Task Force

Ann Kenda
Smoke lingered after a field burn in Mississippi County in October 2017.

Rice industry leaders have announced a plan to form a task force to look into whether voluntary smoke management guidelines can help reduce tension between farmers who use field burns to clear residue after the harvest, and residents who say the smoke aggravates asthma symptoms. 

The task force  will use a model based on smoke management guidelines for forestry landowners.

“They’ll use it as a template but draft smoke management  guidelines that are voluntary but more applicable for agriculture, specifically with crops,” said Lauren Waldrip Ward, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation.

Such guidelines may include instructions on how to judge wind speed and directions and when to wait a few hours — or even another day — before clearing a rice field with a flash burn.

“I don’t think you’ll find one farmer anywhere that’s doing something on purpose to be a nuisance to their neighbors,” said state agriculture department secretary Wes Ward. 

He expects there to be a lot of cooperation among farmers.

'There is always interest in protecting everything that is natural about Arkansas,' says agricultural department spokesperson Adriane Barnes about the new move towards compromise on farm smoke.

Even the smoke’s critics welcomed the news of the task force.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with this plan,” said Dr. Warren Skaug, a pediatrician in Jonesboro who’s been outspoken on the subject of the harm field smoke can do to his young patients’ developing lungs.  

Pediatrician Warren Skaug demonstrates the portable air quality machine he uses to take readings. Air quality has been much better since agricultural burning season ended, he says.

Skaug said a full ban would be the healthiest and cleanest solution, but since it may not be realistic, he is eager to see if the task force’s work will help to get smoke reduced or pointed away from people at risk.

“As a standalone item, this is not insignificant.  The voluntary smoke management guidelines, as they would apply to row crop farmers,  have some potential to do some good, and it’s a delight to me that the farming industry has come up with this,” said Skaug.

Skaug said the air quality reading he takes every afternoon has improved considerably since field burning season ended.

“During the rest of the year, our air in Northeast Arkansas is quite good,” he said.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

Ann Kenda joined Arkansas Public Media in January 2017 from Sudbury, Massachusetts. She is a graduate of Syracuse University and previously worked in public radio, commercial radio and newspaper in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. She focuses on health, justice, education and energy as part of the Arkansas Public Media team. Her stories can be found on the airwaves, and social media.
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