Mid-Columbia great for turfgrass seed

By Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 27, 2012 

Grass is a green crop for Washington.

Sure, it grows in various shades of green, but farmers in Washington actually grow turfgrass for the seed, mainly east of the Cascade Mountains.

“About 90, 95 percent is grown on this side of the state,” said Jack Hendrix of Moses Lake. He is one of the growers and a board member of the Washington Turfgrass Seed Commission.

In 2010, there were 50,000 acres planted in turfgrass for seed. That makes Washington the 24th in the nation in production. The crop in 2010 was valued at more than $61 million.

Hendrix and Scott Davis, manger of Lucky H Farms in Franklin and Adams counties where turfgrass is one of the crops, say acreage has fallen off in recent years.

“There’s not as much as there used to be. It’s followed the housing market, and you know where that’s gone. When I started growing turfgrass in 2000, we ran about 8,000 acres of Kentucky bluegrass through the seed plant. This year, it was 40 acres of the Kentucky bluegrass,” Davis said.

Lucky H Farms is owned by Kevin Heinen, who also owns two seed processing plants, Great Basin Seeds in Mesa and North Basin Seeds in Odessa. Heinen also contracts with other Eastern Washington farmers to grow turfgrass for seed, primarily Kentucky bluegrass.

In 2012, for the first time, Heinen grew and processed perennial ryegrass and tall fescue turfgrasses.

The Mesa seed processing plant, depending on the year and market, “runs anything from 3 million pounds to 10 million pounds of Kentucky bluegrass through the plant,” said Joe McNeil, plant manager for Heinen’s two operations.

Four other seed plants handle turfgrass seed in Eastern Washington, Scootney Springs in Othello, Columbia River Seeds in Plymouth, Seed Inc. in Tekoa, Wash., and Dye Seed Ranch in Pomeroy.

In Eastern Washington, turfgrass is planted in the fall for harvest the next summer. Growers in other areas such as Western Washington and Oregon’s Willamette Valley plant in early spring and have to wait until fall to harvest, Davis said.

“Our long Indian summer ... has been excellent for grass growing,” he said.

Once the seed is harvested, the grass is plowed under and replanted.

“It used to be a multiyear crop because grass is a perennial, but the ecologists shut down field burning,” said Hendrix, who has been growing turfgrass seed for 10 years. “If you don’t burn it off, then the next year or the third year diseases start coming in and there’s no way to control them. So now we produce seed one year at a time, which is fine. It yields well the first year. We just have to accept the fact that this is the way we grow it now.”

The majority of the turfgrass seed produced in the state is contracted to Pennington Seed Co., Scotts Co., Barenbrug USA and other national grass seed companies.

“We sell it to them in 50-pound bags, one type of seed per bag, and they create their own proprietary blends,” said McNeil.

Some end up in retail packages in places such as Lowe’s, Home Depot and garden supply stores. But the biggest consumers of turfgrass seed are the professionals — golf courses, landscapers, grass sod growers and the like, McNeil said.

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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