Valley growers look at their options
As grass seed prices, demand ebb, other crops considered
By MITCH LIES
ALBANY, Ore. -- In the old days, crop diversification, said George Pugh, meant growing more than one species of grass seed.
Today, Pugh and his son, Denver, grow wheat and several seed crops, including meadowfoam, white clover, radish, turnips and cereal rye.
And Pugh is looking for more.
Pugh was among hundreds of Willamette Valley farmers to attend a seminar here on grass seed alternatives, Friday, Oct. 23.
The seminar was called to help grass seed farmers survive a perfect storm of high input costs, low prices, high carryover and a lack of movement brought on by an unprecedented drop in demand.
The grass seed industry has worked through other bad times, said Matt Herb, head of three Oregon seed trade associations. This one could be more precarious, he said.
"We produce the best grass seed in the world, period," Herb said in the seminar's opening presentation. "But it's no secret; we're in dire straits."
The day-long seminar provided growers information on federal price-support programs and production information on several alternative crops.
Stan Armstrong, who farms near Woodburn, said soybeans could be an attractive alternative. This past year Armstrong grew soybeans developed by Oregon State University breeders specifically for the Northwest climate. The short-season soybeans are non-GMO and can be used for oil or edible markets.
"If you can raise snap beans, you can probably raise soybeans," he said.
"One key here is not to water them up," Armstrong said. Water lightly if they need moisture, he said.
Armstrong pulled yields of between 69 and 55 bushels per acre at 13 percent moisture content.
He's waiting to see if the beans meet export specifications.
"If you want to grow soybeans," he said, "I suggest you get with a company that has had some experience (in the Northwest). They do not grow the same here as they do in the Midwest."
Armstrong was followed by two seed buyers, Dave Lockwood and Tomas Endicott. Both said they are contracting for camelina seed.
Endicott, of Willamette Biomass in Rickreall, said the company crushes seed for oil content and sells the meal to livestock producers.
Growers, he said, can generate profits similar to those of 100-bushel wheat.
Presenters also talked about flax, meadowfoam and fava beans.
Pugh said he came out of the seminar thinking flax.
"It could have a good fit in our soils," he said. "We really need something that we can raise on wet ground."
Lisa Hanson, deputy director for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, said the seminar wasn't intended to provide growers answers, but as a starting point for conversation.
"Take this as a beginning of a conversation that is ongoing," Hanson said.
"The idea is not to offer specific information about any particular crop, but to get you thinking about options," said Russ Karow, head of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Oregon State University.
"What we're good at is growing cool season crops," He said. "We need to ask ourselves how to we optimize cool season winter crops in this environment."
More information on the seminar and on crop alternatives can be accessed at the Oregon Seed Council website, http://oregonseedcouncil.org.
Staff writer Mitch Lies is based in Salem. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .