Training cuts complaints during sugarcane harvest

Intensive training for Louisiana sugarcane farmers appears to have significantly decreased the number of complaints from residents as farmers burn fields in preparation for harvesting the cane.

Since the 2000 harvest season, the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry have teamed up to certify sugarcane farmers before they start to burn “trash” — leaves and other unnecessary material — off their crops in a process known as prescribed burning.

As a result, there were only five or six complaints about the burnings last year, down from the 50 or 60 that were received during the 2001 season.

The recently held certification class was different from the past three, because there was relatively low attendance at the training.

But Bill Carney, coordinator of the LSU AgCenter W.A. Callegari Environmental Center, said that's a good thing, because it means most of the state's sugarcane farmers and workers already have gone through the training and certification process. So far, more than 1,500 farmers and their workers have gone through the certification process.

Carney said the purpose of the burn certification training is to teach sugarcane producers how to burn without causing a dangerous situation for the area surrounding the cane fields.

“There are seven recommended procedures the farmers are taught that they can use to minimize the problems associated with burning sugarcane,” Carney said. “These include identifying areas sensitive to smoke and ash, obtaining fire weather forecast, developing a prescribed burn plan, determining the smoke category day, determining smoke and ash screening distance, determining trajectory of smoke and ash plume and evaluating the prescribed burn results.”

Carney conducts the yearly voluntary prescribed burning classes along with Butch Stegall, administrative coordinator of the state Department of Agriculture's Office of Soil and Water Conservation.

Stegall said that the prescribed burn classes came about as a result of the 1993 law that charged his department with the certification of producers to reduce their liability in the burning process.

“There has been a prescribed burning component in forestry for many years, but for sugarcane this came about as the result of several lawsuits involving the burning of the cane,” Stegall explained.

Stegall said since the initial classes were taught in 2000, the number of complaints have definitely decreased, and he said he believes it's directly related to the prescribed burning classes.

Carney said the seven procedures taught in the half-day sessions put the cane farmers in a position of control when it comes to the burning of sugarcane. That helps them avoid potential problems that were the subject of complaints in years past, such as smoke causing problems near highways, hospitals, schools and with high voltage power lines.

“The LSU AgCenter is in charge of the educational component of the prescribed burn classes,” Carney explained. “We developed the text for the classes, and we actually go out and teach the material along with the department of agriculture.”

The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry is in charge of the certification portion of the program.

The farmers and their employees who have gone through the classes since 2000 will have to be recertified in 2005.

Before the certification classes began, producers who didn't know how to avoid the problems would burn their cane without regard for wind direction, wind speed or the time of day that they burned, experts say.

“You may not believe it, but when that smoke gets going, it can get in between those high electric lines and cause them to arch, which in turn shuts down certain electric grids,” Carney said. “When this happens, it can cost as much as a quarter of a million dollars to get those systems back up once they're shut down.”

The LSU AgCenter experts said the training sessions show farmers what they need to do before they ever strike the match.

“The first thing we tell them is to identify sensitive areas such as hospitals, utility substations, highways and airports,” Carney said. “Next, we advise them to notify their local fire district that they are going to burn, so there are no wasted trips when the 911 calls come in.”

Carney said the LSU AgCenter's county agents in each of the state's parishes that produce sugarcane are responsible for letting their producers know the classes are available. AgCenter agents also help to disseminate information about the proper way to burn cane.

In addition to the training about burning, new types of harvesting equipment also have helped by decreasing the need to burn, according to Carney.

“In the past, farmers harvested with what we call the ‘soldier harvester,’ which would lay the cane down and then they would have to burn the cane to get rid of the extraneous material,” he explained. “With the advent of the ‘billet harvester,’ they can now cut the cane green, and there is less need to burn.”

Figures now show that about 80 percent of the state's sugarcane is cut using the newer harvester, and Carney said that means about 80 percent of Louisiana's sugarcane does not have to be burned at the time of harvest. Although there still is some trash left in the field that has to be burned, that amount is significantly reduced with the newer harvesting method, he said.

Johnny Morgan (225-578-8484 or [email protected]) writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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