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Why do we grow grass seed in Oregon??

17 Jan

Here’s a good question, “Why are you growing grass seed on those acres and acres of fields when you could be growing food?”  Well with the recent closing of yet another food processor in this state, the answer to this question can get very complex.  So what I thought I would give you here is the answer to another question, “Why is grass seed an important crop to grow?” 

WHY DO WE GROW TURF TYPE GRASS SEED??
I should start by saying that this is the seed that you would plant for your lawn or is used on sports fields.  Our farm is about 60% turf type grass seed fields.  A mix of variety, but overall it’s either perennial ryegrass or tall fescue (both cool season grasses).  Theses fields stay in the ground anywhere from as little as two years and upwards of 15 years.  On average our fields are in the ground about 5 years.  Which means we are not tilling the soil those years, we plant in year one and we harvest every year the same plants that were originally planted until we have to take the field out.  We have a good climate here in Oregon to grow these grasses, we have an industry that has a long history of investment and research dedicated to making us as farmers able to more with less.  Efficiency on a farm has always been a big concern and when it comes to turf type grass seed that story is no different.

That’s a little background (questions can be left below), but the WHY is what we are trying to get to here.  And that is where the environment comes into the conversation, new technology, and even the simple idea of just getting outside, all play a role. 

Environmental:
If you think of any major environmental disaster, hazard spills, floods, landslides, earthquake, really any situation where there is bare soil, what is the first thing that is usually done to protect that soil from further damage?  They have to plant something, and grass is an excellent tool that can sprout to protect the soil it’s growing from on the surface and also put down roots that hold soil in place.  Roots that also can clean up the ground as a natural filtration system.  Grass in these situations is a tool used that will continue to work for them usually with little oversight and management so they can deal with the larger issues at hand.  It’s also a tool used in combating air and water pollution.  As an example of air specifically, (see carbon sequestration below), China has made an effort to increase plantings of grass to help with their air pollution problem.  The photo below is from India just this year, there are many places similar to this that can use the help from the smog.

Carbon Sequestration:
These plants that stay in year after year aren’t just sitting there doing nothing.  Like all plants they are busy year round taking in carbon.  Yes they have periods where they don’t sequester as much, but overall, grass seed crops are a carbon sequestering tool.  Think of all the good that these acres and acres of crop ground are doing for our atmosphere!  And that’s just above ground, the roots and plant material that is its own ecosystem below the ground is always working.  Our soil is our best resource and grass seed has shown to be a crop that continues the trend of soil health and fertility. 

Interesting fact: Just one acre (about the size of one football field) of tall fescue has been found to sequester 5.45 ton of carbon per year!!

New Technologies:
Our industry is always researching ways to continue to be relevant and solve problems.  One problem how to have grass in areas where water doesn’t fall from the sky with enough volume, or water sources are too expensive or being depleted.  I’m taking about drought resistance.  These varieties use less water, stay greener longer, need less inputs to look good and be healthy.  We are seeing this out in our fields as varieties are greener to the eye when we harvest, but often the seed is mature and ready to harvest.  Another example would be salt tolerant varieties of grass seed.  This serves the market not only of salty soil that’s naturally occurring, but also for roadsides where salt is used to protect motorists in the winter.  That salt can create an issue on roadsides where you need stability, this fits that niche.  Have a soil issue, have a weather issue, let’s see if grass seed can be developed to solve those problems!

Getting Outside, Being Active:
This might seem like such an obvious piece of the puzzle, but I truly believe that grass helps kids (and adults) get outside.  This grass is on sports fields, it’s out your back door, it’s in parks where you can run with your pets.  It’s in all those places that naturally reduce stress and encourage movement.  I think that as a society, this is a big part of continuing down a path of mental and physical health.  Not to mention how much cooler the ground is where there is grass growing, especially in the summer. 

Interesting Fact: It’s been shown that the temperature of ground covered with grass can be 30 degrees cooler than concrete!!

Can you imagine if all around us was just concrete and rocks?  I don’t see that as a place I’d hang out if it was 100 degrees, even if it was in the shade! And what about artificial turf?  Seems like an easy replacement right?  But did you know…..

Interesting Fact: Artificial sports turf field has a budget of $2 million over the life of 20 years, while a nicely cared for natural grass field still budgets in at under $1 million!

You know what all that maintenance and money goes to?  Rubber, labor, and zero carbon sequestration.

Side note: My own personal favorite natural grass turf field….Go Packers!

So while you’re driving around Oregon thinking how irresponsible this is to have all this grass seed growing all around us, think about the end product and markets.  Think about how important that above ground protection and coverage is, think about the carbon sequestration, think about how fun it is to go play catch in your back yard!  And that is where you will find many of the answers as to why we grow turf type grass seed here in Oregon.  Clearly this is just a snapshot of some interesting examples, but as always if you have questions or comments please feel free to type them below!

Why All the Fuss about the Dust?

8 Oct

This time of year (mostly on social media) I hear so many complaints about the dust.

  • Why do they have to create so much dust? 
  • I can’t breathe, why the dust? 
  • Why do they have to work the ground to death?
  • Why don’t they cover crop? 
  • What about no-till farming?
  • Why, Why, Why??!!

Then this great (and timely) piece written by Tiffany Harper Monroe came out in the Eugene Register Guard entitled “From Dust till Dawn”. 

“As more people move into rural areas, it’s important for everyone to remember that farms and ranches are not just bucolic backgrounds. They are hard-working operations raising food and foliage, and sometimes that means there will be the associated dust, noise, smells and slow-moving farm equipment on the roads.”

I get it, I work in the dust and dirt and there are days where my teeth are gritty with it and my clothes are saturated.  So I want you to know that I’m not arguing that the dust isn’t annoying, but I am asking for a look at the bigger picture and hear another perspective.

This was after a particularly dust filled day transplanting cabbage.

It seems so simple from the outside looking in, straightforward answers and solutions, but when I try to sit down today and write down why we do all that we do and why it happens to create dust, it’s overwhelming.  Because the answers aren’t simple and straightforward, it’s a complicated web that reaches from our farm and across the world.

To make one thing very clear, my answer is not, “Well that’s how we have always done it.”  Also my answer is not, “I don’t know.”

FIELD & SOIL ROTATION
On our farm, one reason we till the soil (which often creates dust) is simply because of the crops that we grow.  We raise seed crops and vegetables on the soil that we till.  To do this our soils need to be rotated.  Rotating, which is done often by tillage helps in many ways.

  • Reduces our pest populations (mice and slugs)
  • Gives us a chance to kill unwanted weeds and plants without pesticides
  • Bring last years volunteer seeds to the surface so you can get a sprout and have a naturally occurring cover crop through the winter
  • Reduces disease pressure in the soil profile
  • Allows for more organic material to be put back into the soil
  • Gives certain parts of the soil a break while different crops are being cultivated

SEED GERMINATION & EROSION CONTROL
Working the soil is important because as we work it down into a seed bed, the seeds that we plant this fall will grow better and grow larger plants before the rains start this winter; helping with erosion. If you were to plant into subpar conditions, it’s really hard for the seeds to get up and growing.  It also can leave areas where the seeds don’t germinate at all, leaving space open for weeds to come in.

WEED CONTROL
Why do we care so much about weeds?  Well in any cover cropping, no till, earth saving book you read, at the end of the day, one of the most important factors is your ability to get clean seed to plant.  We provide that seed, and walking through a field to pull unwanted grass species isn’t fun. and isn’t cost effective.  So the better the seed bed of soil when you start, the better seed we can offer for whoever plants it – one with minimal weeds.

BEYOND JUST OUR FARM & OUR SOIL
As you can see my answers go beyond our farm and just our soil, the crops that we are growing in many cases are heading out as “clean seed lots” to be planted in no-till fields across the US.  They are heading out to re-seed pastures and be used as cover crops to protect topsoil.  When these crops grow on our land they are sequestering carbon.  The environmental benefits to what we are doing are huge, the dust, while unfortunate, is part of that picture too.  The whole ecosystem of agriculture that starts on farms across the US, is bigger and more complicated than one tractor in a field creating small particulates that frustrate some folks driving through the beautiful countryside.  It’s not about how we’ve always done things, it’s about how we are moving forward to continually find ways to make our soils healthier while continuing to produce some of the highest quality seed and food for folks across the map.

I encourage you to read Harper Monroe’s opinion article, it carefully spells out some of the other reasons that we do what we do on our farms.  It includes some great points regarding field burning and additional environmental benefits that farmland here in Oregon provides.

It seems so simple this “dust in the air” issue.  But I am asking you to open up your mind beyond “the fuss about the dust” and see that there is a complex system at work here.  I agree with Harper Monroe,  “The more we keep encouraging communication and building relationships between urban and rural residents, the more we will see that Lane County (and Oregon as a whole) is a place for all of us.”

What Happened to the Ditch Bill??

12 Sep

I wanted to write a quick follow up because I have been getting a lot of questions regarding the ditch bill, House Bill 2437,  from last legislative session and what happened to it.  This bill allows us a way to legally clean our ditches to maintain drainage, a practice we have been doing on our farm for 118 years.

Here are the quick facts:

  • The process for us to do our jobs was broken, no one disputed this fact.
  • This bill was worked on for months utilizing the concerns and needs of farmers, environmental groups, municipalities, and legislators from across the state.
  • This bi-partisan bill passed the house and senate with vast majority supporting it fully.
  • August 4, 2019 The bill was put on Governor Brown’s veto list.
  • August 9, 2019 House Bill 2437 was signed into law!! (insert high fives here)

Here’s a little more detail:

This bill addressed a problem that needed a solution; the process we had was not working.  A work group was formed to bring all parties to the table.  We didn’t all get along at first; honestly at the end of the day no one who was at the table got exactly what they wanted either.  Everyone compromised and worked together to find a solution.  Because everyone around the table knew that if this wasn’t fixed, it would only kick the can down the road.

On August 4th when it showed up on the veto list, I was so disheartened.  I didn’t hear directly from the Governor why this bill was on the short list for veto, but I have my ideas.  I think possibly one extreme environmental group had her ear and was yelling loudly.  A group that was consulted on this bill and refused to give any feedback (they wouldn’t work at all through this bi-partisan process).  I also wonder if it was some sort of backlash because Cap & Trade didn’t pass.  These are my assumptions obviously, but what I can say is what I told the Capital Press when they called to get my opinion,

“Even with a positive outcome, it can then come down to political games, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

Obviously I’m overjoyed that in the end the Governor signed the bill.  For one thing as I have said before this was a real solution to a real problem.  But if I take a step back and look at the bigger picture, I’m glad because this is how democracy is supposed to work.  When politicians and citizens work together, their efforts cannot (or at least should not) go unnoticed.  They should not be silenced by the cries from one extreme uncompromising group.

As for the Governor, it’s her job to look out for the state as a whole, not lend her ear only to a select few.  As Governor, she should respect the process by which our legislature stands by, by which it MUST stand by.  When she signed this bill, I believe she did just that.

Political games aside; I’m just a farmer who found herself unable to do the work that has been done for around 120 years on my farm.  I worked through this difficult process with a lot of really hard working folks all with different goals in mind (across the aisle seems like an easy step when considering the hurdles this group overcame).  We found a solution.  We got it passed.  And Governor Brown signed it.  So in my book, this is going down as a win for our state, for farmers and environmentalists, and for democracy in Oregon.

 

One more article regarding this bill and what it means to farmers:

An Open Letter to Gov. Kate Brown on Ditch Cleaning

 

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