JONESBORO — Arkansas State University received two grants this month for research that will study prescribed crop burns to improve guidelines as well as their negative health effects.

Researchers recently received a $571,940 grant through the Non-Land Grant Colleges of Agriculture program for a cooperative study titled “Improving crop residue burning and management recommendations in the Arkansas Delta Region.”

The project director of the study is Aaron Shew, assistant professor and R.E.L. Wilson chairman of Agricultural Economics in A-State’s college of agriculture, who will be working with researchers from the University of Arkansas, University of Arkansas’ division of agriculture, Miami University and the University of Delaware. A-State is the lead university on the project.

A-State professors Joe Ford and Ross Carroll will also be joining Shew in the study, which will run through May 2023.

The main goal of the project is to monitor in-field burns and to improve guidelines for prescribed burns, Shew said.

“Ideally, we’ll be able to reduce smoke in populated areas by improving the guidelines for crop residue burning,” he said.

Shew said the project hopes to be able to have a general metric for the best times for farmers under financial and time pressure to burn. Ford is hoping to build a smartphone app that will give a simulation of what would happen if a farmer was to burn at the time they were in the field.

Shew explained that controlled burning is more cost-effective than tilling. Producers are able to save on man-hours and fuel costs by burning. As part of the project, researchers are also planning to survey producers and residents in the area, which is expected to start within a year. Part of the survey will be to see if residents would be willing to offset tilling costs.

Shew also believes the project will open up opportunities for A-State’s College of Agriculture. The project will change the capacity to do high-level applied research for the area and state, and the universities plan to hire graduate and undergraduate students to work on the project, Shew said.

Dr. Troy Camarata, assistant professor at NYITCOM at A-State, received a grant for a study titled “Exploring Causative Relationship Between Agricultural Burning and Negative Public Health Outcomes in the Arkansas Delta.” The study will look at how air pollution in Northeast Arkansas, where controlled burning is typical, impacts the health of residents.

Camarata said the research has been ongoing since the summer of 2018, and he intends to collaborate with Shew on their studies since they’re looking at the same problem from different sides. Ford will work on the project as well to develop a public information tool with an app that will give users the local air quality and recommendations.

“We want to provide evidence one way or another if there is a correlation between agricultural burning and public health,” Camarata said.

The data that’s been collected so far will move the project forward to collect additional patient data. In the study they will be looking at data from asthma, COPD, cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease.

A 2016 study conducted by the VA St. Louis Health Care System showed that ambient air pollution may be a significant driver of chronic kidney disease.

According to the CDC, chronic lower respiratory diseases were the third leading cause of death in Arkansas in 2016 and 2017 and Arkansas had the fourth highest death rate for chronic lower respiratory diseases in 2018.

Agriculture industries and landowners across Arkansas are able to use a voluntary system to better manage crop burning by assuring that air quality and human health are not compromised by smoke.

Prescribed fires can be reported to the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, which then lists the fires on its website to keep residents in nearby areas informed about possible smoke in the area. The department also recommends completing a safe burning checklist before a prescribed burn, and warns against burning if winds exceed 15 mph, humidity is below 20 percent and when the wind direction could send smoke directly into roadways or communities.

Last fall the Arkansas Department of Agriculture received six calls reporting prescribed burns in Craighead County, public information manager Anna Thrash said. According to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, Craighead County has over 300,000 acres of farmland.

While Arkansas’ system is voluntary, other states have adopted laws to regulate controlled burns. California requires its producers and landowners to have a burning permit, burn only on days determined by local air districts and shred and pile residue when possible. In Washington and Oregon farmers can be fined for burning on no-burn days, and they must receive a burning permit. Louisiana requires certified burn managers to be present at prescribed burns.

In November of 2017, Dr. Warren Skaug published his findings on agricultural burning in Northeast Arkansas. The document, which was signed by 32 Northeast Arkansas physicians, expressed an urgent concern about the adverse health effects of agricultural burning. It found that there is a spike in respiratory illnesses in the fall, and the three realistic goals should be a significant decrease in total burning, elimination of the spikes over population centers and to accomplish those two things with the least pain for farmers and taxpayers.

The study also suggests grants and mandates to fund more extensive monitoring should be considered, as well as a permit system with oversight and enforcement and adoption of a burning fee paired with a tax credit for non-burning alternatives.

University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences researchers found there is a 20.9 percent increase in odds of being treated at the emergency room for asthma and COPD during the fall season in Craighead County. In the study, which spanned from 2014 to 2016, they also found that particulate matter 2.5 levels were higher in the fall that could be attributed to crop burning.

Other than PM 2.5, agricultural smoke also emits carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ammonia and sulfur dioxide, according to Skaug’s findings.