Every year in late summer the newspapers here in Canterbury, the main arable region of New Zealand, run a flurry of letters from readers complaining about smoke and smuts from farmers’ burn-offs of straw and stubble.
Ban them, they say, because the smoke is unpleasant, a health hazard, a risk to traffic, contributes to global warming, and a fire risk to surrounding countryside. Occasionally, a farmer’s response is run in reply, but rarely does the issue get the airing it deserves. Consequently the reasons why judicious burning is better for farm, economy and environment, are rarely heard.
Without this balance, public opinion is gradually sliding from acceptance to intolerance. Sooner or later a politician, local or national, will make a populist pitch to get burn-offs banned. If successful, it will cost New Zealand cropping farmers billions of dollars, as a compensation claim by one local farmer this year highlights. He says a region-wide burning ban imposed last summer cost him NZ$ 446,000 in lost yield due to delayed sowing of wheat, barley, oilseed rape and turf grass for seed across 340 ha of his farm. He estimates extra tractor hours and slug control costs another NZ$ 80,000, taking the total to NZ$ 526,000.
The ban was imposed due to a wildfire which razed 2,000 ha of Christchurch’s Port Hills. It didn’t start from a burn-off, but with most rural fire-fighting resources from Canterbury commandeered to fight it, a ban stretching over 200 km north and south was deemed a wise precaution. Few farmers argued with that. However, the wildfire was out and most fire-fighting resources repatriated within a week, yet restrictions remained in place for a month. To the south of the region in particular there had been plenty of rain and fire risk was low, hence this farmer’s argument the restrictions were unreasonable and his call for compensation.
How successful he’ll be remains to be seen, but it does highlight the value of burning as an agronomic tool, and that’s just one year on 340 ha. Multiplied nationwide the bill would run into billions, not to mention the likely long-term consequences of increased pesticide use and associated resistance and water contamination risks.