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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.

Fields On Fire Topic On The Table At Rice Federation Meeting

Ann Kenda
Fire smolders near Osceola following the fall harvest in 2017.

Leaders from Arkansas’s sizable rice industry are coming together to seek a compromise on the divisive issue of agricultural burning, which tends to inflame relations each fall between farmers who burn residue off their fields and people who say they’re creating a public health hazard that can be seen and smelled for miles.

That concern was one of the leading issues at the Arkansas Rice Federation's annual meeting this week in Jonesboro. Most farmers, according to Jeff Rutledge with the Arkansas Rice Council, want to be good neighbors.

“Our families are raised here, and we breathe this air, too,” he said.

Rice farmer Dan Hosman said he often has to burn fields in Cross and Poinsett counties for environmental and cost-saving reasons but agreed that more control can help reach a fair solution for everyone.

“I can see where it’s not pleasant, and people don’t want to go outside and smell like smoke,” he said.

The voluntary guidelines aim to minimize the effects of the smoke by offering a checklist for conditions that should be met before farmers burn field. It encourages farmers to take turns burning (and, thus, communicate with one another) and identify locations deemed smoke-sensitive, such as outdoor recreational areas, schools and nursing homes.

The voluntary guidelines got a thumbs up from Dr. Warren Skaug, a Jonesboro pediatrician who has been outspoken about the harmful effects of the smoke on his young patients’ lungs.  He sees a spike in respiratory illnesses every fall when burning season is underway.

Pediatrician Dr. Warren Skaug with the air quality machine he uses to log the effects of agricultural smoke.

“It is a meaningful first step,” Skaug said.

He said more may need to be done in the future to further reduce the health effects of agricultural smoke, but he’s impressed by the work done by the task force formed by rice industry leaders seeking more controlled conditions for field burns.

Skaug said he will continue to take measurements with an air quality machine outside the Children’s Clinic in Jonesboro.

“There were many good days in Jonesboro through the fall, with very clean air.  But on the days of uncoordinated burning, those levels got to potentially toxic and dangerous levels and we see the fallout,” he said. 

Skaug added that it would be a “great pleasure” to see those numbers improve and is hopeful that the new guidelines can make that difference.

This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media. What's that? APM is a nonprofit journalism project for all of Arkansas and a collaboration among public media in the state. We're funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK. And, we hope, from you! You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media's reporting at Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.

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