Barb Beyer of the Oregon Seed Council at Doerfler Farms in Aumsville, releases a pilot ballon. ODA’s John Beyer looks on.

Providing Perspective: ODA Officials Find Tour of Seed Operations Educational

from Oregon Seed, Fall 2014

Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and elected officials were given a first-hand look at the grass seed industry May 22 at the Oregon Seed Council’s second annual education and outreach tour.

The five-hour trip included stops at Mountain View Seeds in Salem, Doerfler Farms in Aumsville and Ioka Farms in Silverton.  The tour ended with a dinner at Pratum Co-op’s fertilizer blending facility.

The Seed Council hosted the tour to provide apartment officials a better understanding of the industry and the issues it faces.

First stop was Mountain View Seeds where workers were filling bags of seed mixtures that were destined for retailer shelves.  Company President Troy Kuenzi pointed out that most of the company’s seed is sold in mixtures these days, usually customized blends.  He said hat about half the grass seed sold at Fred Meyer’s hails from Mountain View, as does more than 70 percent of the seed sold at Wilco Farm Stores.

In 2013, Mountain View topped $45 million in total sales, he said.

The company’s subsidiary Peak Plant Genetics is the largest tall fescue breeder in the United States, he said.

Kuenzi next discussed what the company is doing to confront endophyte, an alkali in tall fescue that improves stand performances but is toxic to livestock when ingested at high levels.  He told participants that Mountain View is a part of a group called Alliance for Grassland Renewal, which is trying to replace toxic tall fescue grasses with fescue containing nontoxic endophyte.

The alliance, formed in 2012 and based in Missouri, includes partners from industry including several high profile seed companies, university extension and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In addressing new trends, Kuenzi told ODA officials that the company is starting to sell turf-type tall fescue mixtures into southern U.S. states, something unheard of 10 or 15 years ago.

Kuenzi also said the company moves about 10 million pounds of seed a year to the southern U.S. overseeding market, accounting for about one-fifth of the total industry movement into that market.  Oregon’s cool-season perennial ryegrass seed flourish in their winter climate, he said, and then goes dormant about the time bermudagrass, which is widely planted on southern U.S. golf courses, greens up in early summer.

Asked what he believes is the biggest issue facing the industry, Kuenzi identified access to water for homeowners.  Without water, he said, homeowners won’t plant grass lawns.

He identified the Midwest cover crop market as the industry’s best growth potential

Farming Near Homes Challenging

Next stop on the tour was Doerfler Farms in Aumsville.  There ODA officials heard about the challenges of farming near homes, under power lines and adjacent to wine grapes.

The Doerflers farm 260 fields that they either lease or own, said Amy Doerfler Phelan.  In many cases, they adapt practices to accommodate neighboring landowners.  “It is challenging,” she said.

Kent Doerfler talked about the challenges of field burning.  The Oregon Legislature in 2009 banned open field burning in the Willamette Valley in all but 15,000 acres, mostly in the Silverton hills, and only on two species; fine fescue and Highland bentgrass.  The legislation also banned field burning under power lines because the electricity in smoke can cause lines to shut down.

“It’s doable, but it’s a hassle,” Doerfler said about leaving strips unburned under power lines.  In additional to the hassle of keeping fire out from under power lines, the unburned strips also yield far less than adjacent areas.  Still, Doerfler says he is willing to work around the restrictions, given the alternative.

John Byers, head of ODA’s Smoke Management Program, provided a demonstration at Doerfler Farms of how the department determines whether to allow burning on any given day.  The demonstration included the release of a pilot ballon, or Pi-bal, which the department tracks through a theodolyte, a type of telescope that is similar to a surveyor’s device.  The pat of the balloon provides the department information on wind velocity and direction.

Byers said the department allows burning only when several factors align, including that the air current is moving up and away from population centers.  “We are careful, because it is a valuable tool for growers,” Byers said.  “You make the wrong neighbors mad, and you might not like what we get.”

Field Burning Biggest Expense

At Ioka Farms in Silverton Dave Doerfler mentioned that field burning is probably the farm’s biggest expense.  It involves getting crews and equipment ready to act on a moment’s notice, he said and plans can fall through at the last minute if the department decides not to allow the burning.

Also at Ioka Farms, Doug Duerst talked about how the farm was heavily into no-till at one point, but has scaled back on it of late because of slug damage, which is exacerbated by limitations on field burning.  Tilling fields between stands help break up slug tunnels.

Duerst said Ioka Farms raises forage radish, forage turnips, meadowfoam, wheat, oats, Christmas trees and it recently started producing hazelnuts in addition to raising fine fescue, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue.

The farm exports grass seed to New Zealand and Europe, said Mindy Duerst.

“The trick is to have a product that can go to a lot of different places so if one is down, we can send to a market that is hot,” she said.  Exporting can be tricky, however, because each country has its own phytosanitary requirements, she said.

The farm, which started in 1877, today supports eight families.  Three generations of Duersts and Doerflers work the farm.

Following the tour, ODA Director Katy Coba, one of about a dozen ODA officials to participate, thanked the Oregon Seed Council for arranging the tour.  “I think doing these kinds of on-the-ground tours for our staff are incredibly valuable,” Coba said. “All the work that we do in our agency is to support the agriculture industry.  To actually get out and see on the ground what that means and interact with the growers and the processors, you just can’t beat it.

“I’m thrilled that the Seed Council chose to host this tour,” Coba said.

Gary Roth, director of the ODA’s Agricultural Development and Marketing Program, said he came away from the tour with a better understanding of issues facing the industry and a better insight into the industry’s sophistication.

“There are so many steps involved in terms of how the ground is prepared, how the seeds are planted, the baling of the straw, the movement of the straw and seed to domestic and foreign markets.  I think it is easy to look at some parts of agriculture and say, ‘Oh, well, that must be simple,’” Roth said.  “But the grass seed industry isn’t simple at all.

Roth said the tour also reminded him of the sheer magnitude of the grass seed industry, “not only in terms of the volume in production, bot also the positive foot print it leaves in the number of people it employs.”

Oregon Seed Council Executive Director Roger Beyer complimented the growers and seed company executives for the job they did in familiarizing ODA staff and elected officials with issues confronting the industry.

“I think the tour had a positive impact on our guests,” Beyer said.  “They were engaged and asking questions to the very end.”  He said to expect another tour next year.