The Columbia Pulp plant being built in Starbuck will convert wheat straw into a product suitable for making paper, thereby giving farmers an economical alternative to burning. While area residents might embrace new industry and the improvement in air quality each fall, the basic premise of the enterprise needs to be examined.
The assumption is straw is an unfortunate byproduct of raising wheat, which is best removed, either through burning or baling.
However, agronomists and soil scientists would argue that plant residue is integral to soil health, and removing it deprives the land of organic matter that provides nutrients, increases moisture retention and decreases soil compaction (allowing moisture to reach the roots.)
Wheat straw is an important food source for earthworms and other beneficial microbes that convert plant and animal residues into soil organic matter and hummus. Worm excrement is extremely rich in nutrients, including nitrogen. Straw left in the field helps reduce wind and water erosion of the top soil, as well.
Farming itself can deplete the soil over time, regardless of crop rotations or fertilizers applied.
Case in point: Soil samples were done on two adjoining parcels in the Valley; one farmed for over 100 years, and the other, untouched native vegetation. Compared to the undisturbed soil, the farmed sample showed a 37 percent reduction in organic matter and a 50 percent reduction in nitrogen.
There was variable but marked reduction in numerous other essential elements, despite routine fertilizer applications. And this is with no straw removal.
Over time, our farmland will require the replacement of increasing amounts of nutrients to maintain productivity. Nitrogen is easily obtained (but the detrimental effects of fertilizer runoff into our waterways, lakes and oceans are well documented).
Organic matter is a different story, as it cannot be synthesized like nitrogen can. Shy of spreading compost or manure on the fields, the source of organic matter is limited to the plants grown there.
I am not a farmer, but I am interested in issues surrounding sustainability. (Taking what we need from the land to meet our needs without reducing future generations’ abilities to meet theirs.)
While it may seem economical in the short run, removing the straw now impacts the ability of our descendants to provide food for our growing population. The value of straw in sustainable agriculture far exceeds its value in making paper.