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Splendor in the Mass

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The grass seed industry has moved past controversy to good times. Find out how.

This looks like the yard from hell.

That thought entered my mind late one afternoon last summer while I was driving along a country road in western Oregon's Willamette Valley. I was on my way from Corvallis to Eugene. The Willamette River was on my right. But I was staring in the opposite direction.

There were thousands, more likely millions or billions, of vegetative lifeforms crowded together in a field. They had long, thin, yellowish stalks surrounded by green blades. And their blonde tops were so heavy the plants made me think of those scrunched-over workers you see in ancient Egyptian art lugging building supplies for the Pharaoh's pyramid. In some spots, all of them had actually fallen over from the weight of their burdens.

I don't suppose my initial reaction will surprise anyone. I'm pretty sure I'm not the only homeowner who sees grass as the enemy, at least when it's waist-high and has gone to seed. But you know what they say about the reliability of first impressions.

Fescue plants blowing in the wind.

A commercial tall fescue field in the Willamette Valley. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

Continuing through country I'd traveled for years, I turned onto another road where there was more ripe grass, but on both sides. I began to look at it differently. The fields, although they varied in the shade of green and the shape of the plants, seemed to stretch east in the afternoon's gentle light beyond hedgerows, larger enclaves of bushes and trees, farm houses and the truck stops along Interstate 5 all the way to the forested foothills of the Cascades, a 20-minute drive away.

Since then I've learned that seeds in those plants' blonde tops may have greened up quite a bit of the world: the brown earth around a new home in Los Angeles; a golf course wilting in Albuquerque; a well-worn grade school playground in Atlanta; the scarred earth of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh; a new industrial park in Paris; a bare, eroding area in an overgrazed pasture northof Beijing; and a lush lawn, punctured with cricket wickets, on the outskirts of London.

Every year a patchwork of fields like the ones I passed that afternoon makes the Willamette Valley the planet's top producer of cool-season turf and forage grass seed. Or, simply, "the grass seed capitol of the world."

Farmers in other parts of the state, around Madras, La Grande, Hermiston, Medford and Klamath, produce significant crops of grass seed, too (as well as farmers in Washington and Idaho). If you add it all up, Oregon grass seed alone is worth more than $300 million annually at the farm gate. It's the number two agricultural contributor to our state's economy, behind nursery crops.

But whoa. Did we step into a parallel universe? Just a decade ago the situation was different, really different. Remember?

"Before the spotted owl and the salmon, field burning was 'the' environmental issue in Oregon," recalls Tom Chastain, a plant physiologist in Oregon State University's Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, who conducts grass seed research through OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

Two men talking in a field.

OSU research assistant Tom Silberstein, right, talks with Linn County grower Larry Warfel about seed test plots on Warfel's farm. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

That, and the usual economic challenges of farming, made for an industry in serious trouble. The environmental problem had been building for a long time.

Burning the stubble left in grass seed fields after harvest started gaining popularity with Oregon farmers after World War II. Initially, farmers did it to kill a devastating fungus that causes what's called blind seed disease. They realized field burning was an economical way of getting rid of the leftover straw, controlling other diseases, battling weeds and stimulating yield the next year.

But, as anyone who was in the state probably recalls, the burning sent huge clouds of smoke into the air. When the wind didn't cooperate, that smoke occasionally drifted into towns and cities, sometimes even obscuring the sun, such as on Eugene's infamous "Black Tuesday" in 1969, which some residents likened to "the last days of Pompeii."

The public battle over field burning raged for decades. Finally, in 1988, smoke blinded drivers on Interstate 5 south of Albany, causing a 23-vehicle pileup that killed seven people and left 37 injured. The tragedy helped push through a law much more stringent than previous regulations on field burning. The Legislature set a time table for the near-total phaseout of the practice.

A grass seed field: half of it cut and half fully grown.

Oregon farmers harvest grass seed in steps. They cut plants with a swather (seen here), let them dry in windrows and, when the moisture content is right, use a combine to collect seeds. The seeds go to a warehouse where weed seeds, bits of chaff and other impurities are removed. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

"When I first came in 1987, a lot of grass seed growers felt burning was going to have to remain as part of the industry because there was no economically feasible alternative," remembers Mark Mellbye, an OSU Extension Service agent who works with grass seed farmers in Linn, Benton and Lane counties. "They were just coming out of the mid-80s farm crisis. Prices were kind of low. Some were going out of business. When you're financially pressed, it's hard to think of doing things that are more expensive, especially if you don't know if they'll even work, biologically."

Now, a mere decade later, there's a little burning, mainly with a few types of grass that don't respond well to other management practices, but for the most part fire has "gone the way of buggy whips and high button boots," says Bill Young, a grass seed specialist with the OSU Extension Service.

How'd that happen? How did a battered agricultural industry at odds with many residents in the state, facing the loss of what probably was its most economical and effective strategy, become a shining success a few years later? The story starts and ends with farmers, of course, but there are some other key characters.

"A couple of years before the mandatory phasedown [of field burning] started in 1991, farmers started not registering all the acres they could for open burning," says OSU's Mellbye.

"The industry realized smoke was a bad image," adds Young. "What we had to do was provide them with confidence that they could produce their crop in a different way."

The challenge was complex. Meeting it was going to require many kinds of expertise, and teamwork. And that's what happened-the Legislature, research and extension faculty from OSU, researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Forage Seed Production Research Center headquartered on the OSU campus, scientists and others with private seed companies, and personnel with the Oregon Department of Agriculture and other agencies pitched in to work with farmers.

A tractor in a field.

Grass seed growers used to burn the stubble left after harvest to remove straw and kill disease organisms. But it created smoke pollution. Baling straw, then sucking up what's left with a vaccum sweep machine like this is one of several techniques growers and research and extension personnel have developed as substitutes for open field burning. Photo: Bob Rost

Through the years scientists had followed several dead-ends looking for an alternative to open field burning. Looking back some seem almost bizarre, such as huge, odd-looking mechanical burning devices.

"People chuckle about the research with field burning machines," says George Pugh, a third-generation grass seed farmer near Shedd in the southern Willamette Valley. "But I think it had to be done to show it wasn't possible."

In the end, there wasn't a silver bullet. The team has identified at least three alternatives, combinations of techniques, that are viable alternatives to field burning, although they are more expensive:

* Bale and flail. With this method, much of the straw left after harvest is baled and removed, a lot of it for export to places such as Japan for use with livestock. Machines chop and disperse the remaining straw, allowing farmers to apply chemicals effectively to control weeds and disease organisms.

* Bale and vacuum. Here, straw also is baled and removed. A vacuuming machine sucks up leftover straw, seeds and disease organisms.

* Total straw management. This is the most recent development. Farmers leave all the straw in the field, but flail (chop) it several times to spread it out across the field so that the crop is not smothered. At the same time, the straw mulch helps control some weed problems.

Research in laboratories, greenhouses and small scientific plots contributed. But what really helped grass seed farmers move past one of the most environmentally controversial practices in Oregon's history were large, on-farm demonstration projects. Now-retired OSU crop scientist Dave Chilcote put in some of the plots years ago, and OSU grass seed specialist Bill Young and others set up 3- to 5-acre plots more recently with legislative funds that came through the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

"These on-farm demonstrations really hit a note with farmers," says Young. "And this on-farm effort has woven us together as a neat team of extension specialists, agents, OSU researchers, USDA pathologists and weed specialists and growers."

Luck is part of the success story, too. Prices got better, extension agent Mellbye notes, allowing growers to invest in equipment they need with the new farming techniques. A market for leftover straw developed in Japan. Also, he adds, a lot of other studies "started to come together."

As examples, he mentions the work of OSU soil scientist John Hart and graduate student Don Horneck. Their work showed removing straw instead of burning it can rob the soil of the important nutrient potassium. Farmers now fertilize their fields more precisely to replenish nutrients removed with the straw. He also mentions USDA studies of diseases and how to use herbicides more effectively to control weeds.

A paper bag of seed samples.

OSU student worker Jammie Wutzke bags seed samples from a research plot on a commercial grass seed farm. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

But don't get the idea Oregon's grass seed industry is lounging on a bed of roses. There are still problems. One is a never-ending battle with what growers call contamination.

The list of grasses Oregon farmers grow for seed is long. They have names like annual ryegrass, perennial ryegrass, tall fescue, orchardgrass, fine fescue, Kentucky bluegrass and bentgrass.

Some are good in our lawns, some in pastures as livestock feed, some for stabilizing soil that might erode, and some for producing the extremely fine turf you see on championship golf courses. Some can make it through droughts, some grow fast, some slow, some tolerate shade, some outcompete weeds, some are better at withstanding the pounding of feet on an athletic field or a playground.

These characteristics are what people pay for, so the purity of seeds from a field has an impact on a grower's pocketbook.

"As little as half a percent or less weed seed contamination can be enough to downgrade the final product, eliminate the seed from certification and lower its value," says Gale Gingrich, an OSU extension agent in Marion County who works with grass seed growers.

Some of the most troublesome "weeds" come from grass seeds accidentally left after previous harvests. Seeds these "volunteer" plants produce can have different genetic makeups and less desirable characteristics. With annual crops, planted each year, growers use herbicides to kill volunteers. But plants can change over time genetically to resist this.

"I would say the most significant weed problem we have now in the southern Willamette Valley is herbicide resistance in annual bluegrass," says Mark Mellbye.

Part of the solution to the resistance problem is finding more alternative crops like meadowfoam and spring grains farmers can rotate into a field. Growing another crop not only helps a farmer combat the volunteer problem, it helps control diseases, because organisms that attack grasses may be eliminated by the cultivation of another kind of crop.

There is another problem related to herbicides.

Three men on a farm.

"Our ground's poor for most crops but grass grows like a weed here," says Bob Lindsey, left, with fellow Linn County seed producers George Pugh, center, and Steve Parker. Photo: Andy Duncan

"We've replaced field burning with intense chemical use," says grower George Pugh. "I'm sure that will be more and more controversial because of water quality concerns. That'll be the next thing people look at us about."

"Grass crops are inherently good at controlling runoff," says extension agent Mark Mellbye. "We try to get people to plant grass in some areas to reduce runoff." He believes stream pollution near Willamette Valley grass seed fields is mostly caused by chemicals in ditches and field borders, where they are used to control weeds, preventing seed contamination. But he acknowledges "there are trace amounts of runoff from fields."

"We're [extension agents] starting to work with watershed councils and farmers," he says, "to develop conservation practices that can combat stream pollution-things like maintaining riparian zones, putting in buffer strips in sensitive areas, dealing with the chemicals-in-ditches problems, maybe re-establishing trees in certain areas to help salmon. We have always preached that you should have clean field borders, but we need to rethink that."

Grass seed prices are up, and in recent years seed production has been expanding rapidly to the more well-drained, fertile soils of the central and northern Willamette Valley, as well as in other parts of the state, but economic troubles are never far from a grower's mind.

"It is costing them more to grow without field burning," notes OSU researcher Tom Chastain. "Maybe $30 to $40 more per acre."

"We're a fairly low-margin crop," adds grower George Pugh. "We could get pushed just a little from competitors in places like New Zealand, Europe and Canada and not be economical. What got us to international prominence was high quality at a relatively low cost."

Also, problems like the "blind seed disease" that popularized field burning back in the 1940s, are still around. USDA researchers have found low-level infections in fields.

"It's not clear why this hasn't exploded," says Mellbye. "One reason may be that we manage these crops differently now and the varieties mature later."

Four men working in a field.

Several members of OSU's grass seed team. Left to right: Extension specialist Bill Young, extension agent Mark Mellbye, research assistant Tom Silberstein, and plant physiologist Tom Chastain. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

There are other things to worry about. Chastain, the plant physiologist, mentions "dieback in perennial ryegrass."

"We're trying to find out what causes it," he says. "No disease has been linked to it. It might be physiological. We've had several dry falls. The plants may not be developing a root system. Maybe old varieties could handle water stress better." He estimates the problem costs growers $10 million a year.

But if you step back and look, it's obvious the industry is on a roll.

The Willamette Valley has about 995,000 acres of harvested cropland. About 400,000 acres of that produces grass and legume seeds (such as clover). That's compared to about 300,000 acres when the phasedown on open field burning started. Seed production and revenues are up, too.

"When people ask me why Oregon has been so dominant in this market [grass seed]," says OSU's Young, "I always say part of it is climate-mild, wet winters for lush vegetative growth, long, dry summers with up to 16-hour days when you can lay the grass down in a swath to avoid shattering and let it stay in place to dry, then combine it to remove seeds at the right moisture content to avoid shattering and promote safe storage, clean the seeds, bag them and put them on a rail car to Texas or some place like that.

"A second thing is that we have an infrastructure better than anywhere else in the world. People elsewhere are awestruck. In addition to research, the OSU program involves seed certification and testing. We have excellent research from other areas such as the USDA, the Extension Service's information delivery system, and seed company agronomists. Why, there are 365 seed conditioning [cleaning] warehouses in the state. They cleaned and bagged more than 600 million pounds of grass seed last year.

"I get calls from Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, all across Canada, from people trying to grow grass seed. Do we fear this? I don't think so. They'll get little pieces of the market. But most of the world is going to come to Oregon for their seed for a long, long time to come. We can do it better than anyone."

A GLANCE AT HISTORY

"Mr. E. Grimm, agriculturist," was a prophet. In the 1890 annual report of the Oregon Agricultural Experiment Station he wrote:

"The indications are that this is a most wonderful grass country, and when farmers once become fully awakened to the value of their land for grasses and clovers, wheat growing will take a secondary position in the Willamette Valley, which in time will become the home of grasses and clovers in the highest perfection."

It's hard to pin down which grasses were here when. Native Americans burned parts of the valley to increase the grasses. One of the benefits was attracting game.

In his book The Land of Linn Floyd Mullen, an early Linn County extension agent, says, "The time of arrival of both annual and perennial ryegrass is somewhat debatable. Some reports indicated that ryegrass, as high as backs of cattle, was growing through the valley when the immigrants arrived." Other types of ryegrass clearly came later, from Europe and elsewhere.

According to an article by H.H. Rampton of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, the first recorded mention of seed production here, other than cereal crops, was in an 1895 Agricultural Experiment Station report.

An evolutionary process was underway. Farmers were generalists, with cattle, chickens and a variety of other crops.

"But maybe a fellow had a good hay field and pretty soon he wasn't putting up hay, he was selling seed to his neighbors," says OSU grass seed specialist Bill Young.

By the 1920s, seed production with bentgrass, annual ryegrass, perennial ryegrass and other grasses was established. Today, grass seed is the number one crop in the southern Willamette Valley, where poorly drained soils make it hard to grow many other types of crops.

Soils of the more hilly central and northern Willamette Valley drain better. Depending on the spot, farmers can grow beans, corn, mint, hops, berries, grapes and other crops. But grass seed has been expanding the last 10 years.

"It's just relatively more profitable than many other crops right now," explains Marion County extension agent Gale Gingrich. He adds that with many crop rotation options, farmers in his area find it easier to avoid contamination and produce high value, certified seed.

Production in Union County, in northeastern Oregon, goes back at least as far as 1919, when alfalfa and sweet clover were grown for seed. Today the area produces mostly Kentucky bluegrass and fine fescue seed, according to Union County extension agent Gordon Cook.

Grass seed has become a significant crop in Umatilla County around Hermiston in recent years, and in central Oregon, primarily in Jefferson and Deschutes counties, according to extension agent Marvin Butler.

In pounds of seed produced, Oregon's top six counties are, in order: Linn, Marion, Polk, Benton, Lane and Yamhill. There's significant acreage in the Portland Metro area (Clackamas and Washington counties). In 1997, the state's farmers produced about 637 million pounds of grass seed on 439,189 acres. The seed was worth more than $324 million at the farm gate.

THE WILD LIFE IN A GRASS SEED FIELD

When we drive along Interstate 5, or other roads in the Willamette Valley, the animals we often see in grass seed fields are woolly.

Sheep graze on annual ryegrass once it's up in the late fall, and some also graze on perennial grass varieties when those start growing back, explains Jim Thompson, a sheep specialist with OSU's Department of Animal Sciences. Some sheep owners pay grass seed farmers, and some grass seed farmers have their own sheep.

Sheep in a meadow.

Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The animals put on pounds from all that lush forage and "prevent the grass from becoming overgrown, which would result in less seed production," according to Thompson.

They're managed to consume grass to a certain height, then moved off. "They're also moved for other reasons, such as when it gets too muddy," says Thompson.

But there also are plenty of wild animals out there, although we may not see them, according to Bruce Coblentz, a wildlife ecologist with OSU's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

"The primary animal biomass in grass fields, at least in the Willamette Valley, will be the gray-tailed vole," Coblentz explains. "They are the food for a variety of predators, including the great blue herons that you see out in the fields.

"In addition, the hawks we see along roadways (red-tailed hawks) use these voles heavily, as do the harriers and kestrels [other birds]. It isn't terribly uncommon to see a red fox 'mousing,' and they, too, are targeting voles, as do long-tailed weasels, gopher snakes and green racers [another kind of snake].

"The geese that winter in the valley are the other major herbivores [plant eaters] utilizing the grass," Coblentz continues. "They're purely grazers, as are the voles and sheep. I'd presume that a couple of species of owls are also using the voles."

OREGON AND CHINA LAUNCH GRASS PROJECT

Oregon's grass seed industry is big. Now it has new ties with the world's most populated country.

In February the Oregon Seed Council, two Chinese universities, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture and Oregon State University launched a joint venture called the China National Turfgrass Variety Trial.

Companies in Oregon and elsewhere have shipped turfgrass seed to China for evaluation at 11 testing sites. Overseeing the tests will be faculty from Nanjing Agricultural University and China Agricultural University in Beijing.

Oregon companies have been selling grass seed in the country for some time, says Bill Young, a grass seed specialist with the OSU Extension Service.

"We scoped out what it would take to open the door to more Oregon turfgrass seed," says Young. "The answer is that we need to pinpoint what would grow best in Beijing versus Nanjing or another part of China. That's what this evaluation program will tell us."

Young is coordinating the project, which he developed with Cao Wexing, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University who was a graduate student at OSU several years ago.

"China is getting more concerned about greening up. This is a huge opportunity," says Kelvin Koong, an associate director of OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station.

Published in: Economics