Come the fall, the field will be harvested, your grain will be in the bin, and if you’re lucky, everything will quickly be hauled off.
All that will be left on your field is the straw, and if it’s a flax field, that straw becomes a real pain next seeding season. It wraps around the seeding equipment until it’s so tightly bound you need a serrated blade and two hours of precious seeding time to get it off.
So naturally, farmers have been burning their straw post-harvest for years to avoid this problem.
Driving around in the fall and seeing a flax field with heaps of little flax straw hills is commonplace in rural farming communities. Also common is the burning that follows.
Burning the straw is such an easy way to eliminate seeding stress that we rarely look at the side effects, such as pollution and adverse environmental effects.
Agricultural scientists legitimized the practice of burning flax straw in the 1950s because recovering the fibre was not worth the trouble. That’s because the variety grown on the Canadian Prairies produced stems too rigid for traditional recovery processes.
Today, Canada grows about two million acres of flax and burns nearly one million tonnes of straw annually because it’s been an accepted government policy for more than 60 years.
However, we are not living in the 1950s anymore. Technology has increased tremendously to the point where it is possible to retrieve flax oil from the long textile fibre in the stem called the bast fibre by means of proper organic acid and alkaline treatments.
The debate over whether we should burn flax straw has been kept relatively on the down low with no widespread public attention at all. This needs to change.
I believe there are so many options that can be taken advantage of when it comes to flax straw.
The bast fibre is strong and flexible, and while not as high quality as the fine linen produced in Europe, it could be used in woven textiles and reinforcing other fibres. We can obtain about 20 percent bast fibre yield from the flax straw with the other 80 percent comprising plant matter rich in complex sugars and lignin. This plant matter can be used in renewable energy commodities to replace fossil fuels such as coal.
The Saskatchewan government relies on voluntary action, urging farmers to “think of your neighbour” before burning flax straw. However, this sort of mentality is not working anymore.
In 2012, the Globe and Mail reported that people have become more self-oriented, especially with the increase of large corporate farms having less regard for one of their 200 neighbours.
I firmly support putting in place policies to slowly ban this practice because the alternatives are only increasing year by year, and the smoke truly is detrimental to the environment, no matter what farmers might tell you.
Phillip Schaefer has just completed the third year of an agribusiness degree at the University of Saskatchewan. He grew up on a grain farm southeast of Regina.