"The '08 crop was the most expensive crop we ever grew, and we're not going to get that back," commented seed producer Harry Stalford. "Just about every pound of seed I sell right now, I'm losing money on."

Oregon grass farmers hang tough

When housing starts collapsed last year, landscapers stopped planting lawns. Golf courses stopped reseeding. Ranchers planted less grass to feed fewer cattle. Prices plunged for grass seed that growers had raised using the highest-priced fuel in history, costs further inflated by an ethanol boom that made fertilizer expensive and farm equipment scarce.

“The ’08 crop was the most expensive crop we ever grew, and we’re not going to get that back,” commented seed producer Harry Stalford. “Just about every pound of seed I sell right now, I’m losing money on.”

Farmers are accustomed to battling slugs, cutworms, voles, weeds, bugs, birds, skunks and rust. Now they’re contending with Midwest and Canadian competition, poor East Coast grass-growing weather, homeowners replacing lawns with vegetables, tight credit, a field-burning ban, depressed foreign markets and currency-exchange rates that hurt exports. As a result, seed growers and traders are stuffing more than 100 million pounds of year-old seed into barns and warehouses as farmers bring in this year’s crop of more than 500 million pounds. The stored goods attract poison-resistant mice that chew into bags and nest in seed that must be re-cleaned and rebagged. Unemployment in the heart of grass-seed country in the Williamette Valley of Oregon, climbed to over 15 percent in June, more than twice the level of a year before afflicting Oregon’s $500 million grass-seed crop. “I haven’t seen this happen in my lifetime,” said seed producer George Pugh, 66. Pugh grows enough seed each year to plant roughly 3,800 football fields. “My dad was a Depression-era kid. He warned me there’d be days like this.”

About 1,350 Oregon farmers grow grass seed. More than 50 dealers buy and sell it. In 2008, grass seed amounted to Oregon’s third-most valuable crop, behind nursery products and hay.

Josh Davidson, a sixth-generation farmer, started farming on his own 15 years ago. “I had some pretty tough times at the beginning of my career,” said Davidson, 35, “when I didn’t know from year to year whether I was going to make it.” Davidson has never questioned his decision to farm. He says there’s something special that he can’t put into words about planting, nurturing and harvesting seed. The father of five plans to hand his spread to a seventh generation.

“I’m going to encourage each one of my children,” Davidson said, “to carry on the profession.”

Decreased demand for grass seed has had an impact on seed producers and traders.

Adapted from Jerry Casey article in The Oregonian, August 01, 2009