TANGENT, Ore. — Pulling apart a thick tangle of balansa clover stems, farmer Mike Coon likes what he sees beneath: bare ground.
The lack of annual bluegrass and other weeds growing under the balansa clover is one of the prime benefits of the crop, he said.
“It’s so competitive, it virtually chokes out any weeds,” said Coon.
Ordinarily, other grass or clover crops wouldn’t grow thickly enough to prevent unwanted plants from emerging in the field, said his son, K.C. Coon.
“This is a real weed pit,” he said.
The Coons are growing about 150 acres of balansa clover for seed under contract with Grassland Oregon, a seed company in Salem, Ore.
After more than a decade of research and development, Grassland Oregon is ready to commercialize its own line of “FIXatioN” balansa clover.
The clover, which can produce stems longer than 10 feet, is grown commercially in Australia and South Africa but isn’t widely known in North America, said Jerry Hall, co-founder of Grassland Oregon.
Varieties commonly grown overseas aren’t suitable for the Northwest climate, he said. “They didn’t have the cold tolerance. They wouldn’t survive our winters.”
Hall said his company began seeking new rotation crops for grass seed farmers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the early 2000s.
Of the 2,000 lines of 26 different clover species tested by the company, roughly 90 percent died during the first winter.
The heavy winter kill made the selection process a lot easier, Hall said. “From a breeding standpoint, that was a good thing.”
The “FIXatioN” variety derives from a non-commercial balansa clover that grows along the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
Hall said he expects farmers in the Midwest will use the balansa clover as a cover crop — letting it grow over winter and then killing it off mechanically or chemically prior to corn planting.
Aside from suppressing weeds, the species can fix about 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre, acting as a “green manure” for the field, he said.
The crop also provides a new forage option for dairy and livestock producers, Hall said.
The Coons said they were impressed with balansa clover’s ability to grow equally well in well-drained and water-logged soils.
“I think it almost did better on the wetter ground,” said K.C. Coon.
The crop’s ability to withstand low temperatures and more than half a foot of snow during the most recent winter also bodes well, said Mike Coon.
“It didn’t seem to have any problem at all,” he said.
Hall said the species generates roughly 1,000 pounds of seed per acre and can grow in soil that’s more acidic than is suitable for crimson clover, a popular crop in the Willamette Valley.
Grassland Oregon has distributors lined up to sell the crop and may contract with additional growers to produce seed if demand eventually proves strong enough, he said.
“People want to try it first,” Hall said.