Gone to seed
WORLD Radio - Gone to seed
Oregon family farm gives up traditional crops to grow grass
NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, April 28th
This is WORLD Radio and we’re glad to have you along today.
Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.
Coming next on The World and Everything in It: growing green ... grass, that is.
I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see my lawn coming back to life. Little spring green blades that smell good.
Not so exciting? Firing up the lawn mower.
Either way, spring reminds us how much we desire to have that lush natural green carpet.
But have you ever stopped to think about where your grass
comes from? WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg visited the Grass Seed Capital of
the World to find out.
SOUND: COMBINE RUNNING
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Mechanics are busy tuning up the engines of four green combines. This summer, the massive machines will move through grass fields in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
They’ll pick up cut grass, spit out the blade, and keep the seed. That seed is what Jordyn Coon and her family are after.
JORDYN: Inside the combine, there is air movement, there is physical agitation. And you end up with just the grass seeds themselves in the tank and everything else blows out the back.
Coon and her older brother K.C. are the sixth generation operating their family farm.
The family used to raise wheat and livestock. But in the 1960s, many Oregon farmers, including the Coons, switched to raising grasses.
K.C. Coon says the climate here quickly made Oregon the center of global grass seed production.
K.C.: We have, I guess it'd be a kind of a Mediterranean type climate here. And so cool season grasses thrive here, because we aren't hot. And we don't freeze.
The family grows two types of grasses: forage and turfs. Forage grasses are for livestock to eat. And turf grasses cover lawns, parks, and golf courses. They provide a cooling effect and beauty.
K.C.: I mean there are thousands of varieties just under those two categories.
Today, K.C. is heading out to spray grass crops for weeds while Jordyn drives around the farm checking on fields.
The Coons planted most of these grasses last fall. It’s not far into spring, but the blades are quickly shooting up.
One field is already 6 inches tall. It’s a turf grass—deep green with thick, dense blades.
JORDYN: I think this field right behind us is a golf course grass.
But unlike a golf course, the Coons won’t keep this carpet neatly mowed. They’ll let it keep growing tall until it comes to seed.
JORDYN: If a person just let their lawn grow, it's going to become incredibly tall, and eventually it will produce seeds.
In another field, a forage grass grows.
JORDYN: Alright, so this is triticale. So it is a deep green. It's got a thick blade of grass. It is a cross between rye and wheat. This will be for cattle, sheep, goats.
But the Coons don’t only grow grass. They grow some crops that will help grass grow better.
SOUND: CAR DOORS SLAMMING
In another field down the road, a field of tall stems with yellow flowers waves in the breeze.
Beehives near the field buzz with activity.
SOUND: BUZZING BEES
These are turnips in bloom. The turnips help break up the soil, making it easier for grasses planted later to send out their roots.
The Coons will only harvest the turnip seeds. They’ll leave the bulbs alone.
JORDYN: We leave them in the ground. Its organic matter breaks down. Those turnips just add back to the soil.
Jordyn Coon says grasses are valuable plants for humans, animals, and soil.
JORDYN: You have your fun uses of it. For people's enjoyment, grass is important. There's a lot of oxygen, you know, photosynthesis and carbon sequestration going on in grass.
The family will harvest most of the grass seeds later this summer and fall.
And when they do, the crop comes here.
SOUND: CONVEYOR BELT RUNNING
JORDYN: So everything post field happens in this building.
Inside a massive white shop, a series of conveyor belts are moving, shaking and sifting the seeds. Air compressors blow away dust.
JORDYN: The goal when we sell seed is for it to be as close to completely pure seed of only what that one variety, that one type of seed is.
Once dust and weeds have been sifted out, the tiny seeds drop down through a chute and into a bag. Some bags hold 50 pounds. Others hold up to 2,000 pounds.
Then an automated sewing machine stitches the bag shut. These seeds are ready for sale.
Every single bag gets a serial number that identifies where the seed came from.
JORDYN: Maybe they plant something, and there's weeds in it. They can figure out where it came from and try and figure out the issue.
A nearby shed stores hundreds of seed bags neatly stacked in tall piles.
JORDYN: This is perennial ryegrass. A few rows down is fescue, another grass. And then further down, you might find some rye grass as well.
The Coons don’t sell their products directly to homeowners or farmers. They contract with large seed companies that will brand and sell the bags themselves.
Some seeds go all over the world.
JORDYN: It's here waiting for the buyer to decide where to send it. And a truck will come. We'll load it and it'll head off on a cargo ship or something.
Over sixty years, the family has seen demand for grass seed ebb and flow.
K.C. Coon says after the 2008 housing collapse, the family didn’t sell a single pound of lawn grass seed for three years.
K.C.: We got to the point where we were going to have to start selling just to have cash. And we held off about two weeks or three weeks. And all of a sudden, we started selling and making money and started getting things paid down, getting healed up.
Last year held something else unpredictable. The coronavirus confined people at home. That led to an increase in lawn seed demand.
K.C. says the challenge of raising this crop, and its importance, keeps the Coons hanging on through it all.
K.C.: So grass seed in and of itself to most people wouldn't be exciting. The exciting part is the chess match of if I do this, what is the cause? Or the effect? And how do I make it yield better?
MUSIC: WHERE THE GREEN GRASS GROWS BY TIM MCGRAW
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Shedd, Oregon.
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