Fields Burn And Tempers Flare: Harvest Fires Set Off Health Concerns, Complaints

Oct 18, 2017

When the winds are just right on an October afternoon, clouds of smoke can be seen from the rural highways of Mississippi County. 

Once in a while, an out-of-state motorist calls 911 to report a fire, but most people who live and work in the county are familiar with the phenomenon.  It’s agricultural burning, a widely used but controversial practice that allows the farmers to clear their fields quickly after a harvest and get ready for the next season.

“It is absolutely a necessity,” said Mike Sullivan, a farmer in Burdette.

He said farmers would prefer not to have to burn and face the wrath of neighbors and others who say they are polluting the air and causing problems for people with respiratory problems.  But he said when the time, costs and outcomes of burning are compared with mechanical methods of clearing a field, the decision is an easy one.

Farmer Mike Sullivan demonstrates how much straw and organic matter is left over after a recent burn. He says the flash burns just get the fields into a management state.
Credit Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Sullivan said often the straw is so high that a machine would not be able to pass over it.

“The fact that you’re burning the rice field just gets it to a manageable state.  It does not get rid of all of the straw.  Probably 50 percent of the straw that’s out there is still going to be out there after the burn,” he said.   

All fires are set with full consideration for the wind directions and speeds and farmers attempt to point smoke away from homes and highways whenever possible, he said.

“These are our neighbors, who we go to church with,” he said.

All fires are set with full consideration for the wind directions and speeds and farmers attempt to point smoke away from homes and highways whenever possible. "These are our neighbors, who we go to church with," says Burdette farmer Mike Sullivan.

Swifton resident Linda Norris said the ongoing smoke in her county keeps her indoors for much of October, and even then, she often has to wear a mask inside her own home.  She told stories of other retirees suffering from farm smoke-related illnesses.

“I never get angry at people. This is the only time of the year I just lose my senses,” she said of the ongoing stress caused by agricultural smoke. 

She suggested that perhaps communities could come together for a fundraiser for farmers who can’t afford to clear their fields without burning.   

In Arkansas, farmers have a legal right to burn, and they do not need a permit, according to David Moore with the Craighead County Office of Emergency Management.  Farmers may burn at any time when there isn’t a county burn ban in effect, and they could seek an exemption during a burn ban.

Dr. Warren Skaug steps outside the Children's Clinic in Jonesboro every afternoon to get a reading on a portable air quality machine.
Credit Ann Kenda / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Dr. Warren Skaug, a pediatrician in Jonesboro, said he sees farm smoke-related illnesses in his young patients on a regular basis.  The elderly, people with respiratory conditions and people with certain allergies are also considered at high risk for problems associated with agricultural smoke.  Skaug said all  children are vulnerable since they breathe more air for their weight and their lungs are still developing.

Skaug steps outside the Children’s Clinic in Jonesboro every afternoon to take an air quality reading with a portable machine. His logs indicate a spike in poor quality air on days when farmers are burning nearby. He predicted that someday, agricultural smoke will be thought of like secondhand smoke. 

"It became clear what passive smoke did as a health hazard, and those things were regulated against.  And life has gone on.  It did not cause the extinction of bars, restaurants and airplanes,” he said.

Skaug said he is well aware of the financial pressure many farmers are under and hopes to help find a solution that doesn’t put farmers out of business.

“It’s not an excuse to push the costs on to the rest of population and translate an economic burden into a health burden.  That is the phenomenon that is going on,” 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 arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.