Kathy Hadley maneuvers a combine over neat rows of tall fescue that was recently cut at her family’s farm near Rickreall, Ore., in the heart of the Willamette Valley, where farmers grow roughly two-thirds of the cool season grass seed produced in the U.S.
Grass seed harvest began in mid-June, and despite an unusually dry May with almost no significant rainfall, Hadley says yields should be close to average, with a wide range of variability from field to field.
“For us, we’re just kind of at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Hadley says from behind the wheel as dry grass feeds into the combine’s header. “It’s all across the board, from being really poor to really good.”
Seed prices are also a mixed bag, with the price of turf-type tall fescue particularly strong, based on several factors, including short supply and new varieties displacing perennial ryegrass in some markets.
Hadley is harvesting 30 acres of turf-type tall fescue for DLF Pickseed in Halsey, Ore. Companies such as DLF contract with farmers to grow their proprietary varieties.
Following a mild winter and dry spring, Hadley says growers were concerned about lower yields and seed weight heading into this year’s harvest, though they appear to be in good shape so far.
“It’s been going pretty smoothly,” Hadley says. “We’ve had some trucks that weighed really good.”
Growers will receive 9 cents more per pound for tall fescue this year — a price bump of about 11 percent. Mark Simmons, executive director of the Oregon Grass Seed Bargaining Association, says farmers hope to maintain that increase over the next few years.
The association, made up of 150 members, negotiates prices for tall fescue and perennial ryegrass with dealers. Simmons, a former Oregon legislator and state House speaker, says there is already a shortage of turf-type tall fescue, and breeders have developed more robust varieties preferred over perennial ryegrass, prompting greater demand.
“The breeders have developed new dark green, finer leafed varieties of turf-type tall fescue that the market likes,” Simmons says.
Lucas Solis, vice president and general manager of Pure Seed in Canby, Ore., says tall fescue continues to be in high demand, but cautions against overproduction pressuring prices.
“I think there should be a lot of concern about tall fescue,” Solis says. “When you have increased production and a pie that’s only so big ... it’s just the law of economics. Supply goes up, price goes down.”
Oregon grows about 400,000 acres of grass seed, 90 percent of which is in the Willamette Valley. The industry produces approximately 600 million pounds of seed each year, according to the Oregon Seed Council.
While nearly all of western Oregon is experiencing moderate drought, Simmons says high heat did not come until after cutting began, sparing growers a worst-case scenario.
“Luckily we didn’t get any 90- or 100-degree temperatures in May while we weren’t getting any rain,” he said. “If that had materialized, we would probably really be singing the blues during harvest.”