North Carolina farmers will have more specific guidelines for acceptable outdoor burning under an agreement that state environmental and agricultural officials signed recently.

The memorandum of understanding between the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources — Division of Air Quality and the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services sets guidelines for acceptable burning on farms, primarily to control diseases or pests as well as some crop residues. Although it remains illegal to burn man-made materials, the state open burning rule allows some exceptions for the burning of plant materials — such as land-clearing and acceptable agricultural practices.

“The purpose of this agreement is to better manage agricultural burning so we can minimize the effects of air pollution on people,” said DAQ Director Keith Overcash. “Smoke is unhealthy to breathe and harms the environment, but we recognize there are situations where farmers may need to burn crop debris in order to control diseases, pests and other problems.”

Under the state open burning rule, it is always illegal to burn man-made materials such as trash, paper, lumber, tires, plastics and chemicals. The rule allows exceptions for certain burning of trees, crop residues and other vegetative matter but doesn’t provide specific guidelines on acceptable agricultural burning.

Under the new agreement signed by DAQ and NCDA&CS, it remains illegal for anyone to burn man-made materials. However, farmers may burn crop residues, tree trimmings and other vegetative matter to control diseases and pests. Farmers also may be able to burn crop residues when NCDA&CS considers it an acceptable practice, but the agreement discourages burning when better alternatives such as no-till agriculture are available.

“This agreement provides clear guidance about the acceptable uses of burning for agronomic purposes,” said Dewitt Hardee, NCDA&CS environmental programs manager, who worked on the agreement with DAQ staff.

North Carolina law prohibits most open burning because the smoke from outdoor fires can cause serious health problems and pollute the air. For example, a recent study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that backyard burning of trash from a family of four can emit as much of some toxic pollutants, such as dioxin and furan, as a well-controlled municipal incinerator serving tens of thousands of households.

Homeowners can burn yard trimmings — excluding stumps and logs over 6 inches in diameter — if it’s allowed under local ordinances, no public pickup is available and it doesn’t cause a public nuisance. Other allowable burning includes fireplaces, campfires, outdoor barbecues and bonfires for festive occasions. Landowners may be allowed to burn vegetation to clear land or clean up storm debris, but they should check first with the nearest DAQ regional office. People seeking to burn also may need permits from the Division of Forest Resources.

Under the open burning rule, the DAQ can assess fines as high as $25,000 per violation, but most fines are less than $1,000 for first-time offenders. Larger fines can be assessed in cases involving repeat violations, and people who knowingly violate the law.

A free brochure describing what is allowed and prohibited under the open burning rule can be obtained by calling (919) 733-3340, or writing to the Division of Air Quality at 1641 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-1641, or visiting the DAQ Web site at www.ncair.org.