How many grass seed farmers are there in Oregon?
There are about 1,500 grass seed farmers in Oregon, employing up to 10,000 Oregonians. Most of the farms are in the Willamette Valley, especially in Linn, Benton and Marion counties. Linn County is often called “The Grass Seed Capital of the World.” Other counties with grass seed acreage include Jefferson, Jackson, Union, Morrow and Umatilla counties.
Grass seed farming is a vital component of Oregon’s economy. Currently, grass seed is a $300 million industry. Most of that money flows into Oregon from out of state.
Overall, grass seed farming drives more than $1 billion in annual economic activity in Oregon.
Grass seed is Oregon’s fifth largest agricultural crop. Statewide, grass seed is grown on nearly 400,000 acres. Of those, 360,000 acres are in the Willamette Valley, which is nearly equal to all other types of agriculture combined.
By acreage, roughly 25 percent of the Willamette Valley (including Portland and Eugene) consists of grass seed farms. Roughly another 25 percent is forested, 25 percent is urban and 25 percent is divided among other uses.
Oregon’s grass seed is grown by full-time professional farmers. Many farm families go back several generations to the original Oregon settlers.
Because grass seed farmers are focused on the long-term interests of Oregon and farming, they have a strong connection to the land and are constantly seeking ways to improve farming practices. Oregon’s grass seed farmers are truly working environmentalists.
In 2009, Oregon produced and marketed 600 million pounds of cool season grass seed. About 1 percent to 2 percent of grass seed grown in Oregon is used in the state. Between 15 percent and 20 percent is exported outside the United States.
Why is Oregon suited for grass seed farming?
The combination of cool, moist winters and dry, warm summers is ideal for grass seed production. Much of the soil in the Willamette Valley is well suited for growing grass and has limited value for other crops. Finally, Oregon’s grass seed growers have learned to produce very high quality seed.
Oregon farms produce seven types of turf and forage grass seed: orchardgrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, annual and perennial ryegrass, bluegrass and bentgrass.
Oregon farmers work carefully to meet the high quality standards required for worldwide distribution.
Farmers use many different tools to ensure that fields are as clean as possible before planting. After harvesting, seed lots are tested for purity in the Oregon State University Seed Laboratory and other labs.
This process ensures that Oregon maintains its worldwide reputation for the highest quality grass seed.
How does grass seed farming help Oregon’s environment?
In many places, the soil is not suitable for other crops. If not for grass seed farming, the land could be developed for commercial purposes or subdivisions.
Having nearly one half-million acres planted in grass seed is also very important for clean water in Oregon. The filtering/metabolizing qualities of grass help to keep nitrates out of Oregon’s waterways. And grass is excellent at reducing erosion, keeping sediment out of waterways.
The one half-million acres planted in grass seed also mitigate global warming because of grass seed’s ability to capture and retain carbon.
Why do some grass seed farmers burn their fields?
Some farmers grow fine fescue and rely on field burning to stimulate seed yield. Fine fescue will not thrive and cannot be grown profitably without controlled burns.
Others farm on extremely steep terrain. A ban on thermal sanitation would force these farmers to rely on conventional tillage, which would dramatically increase the amount of sediment in our rivers and streams. The increased sediment would negatively impact water quality and fish spawning.
Many Oregonians mistakenly believe that field burning occurs far more often than it actually does.
In 2013, 10,980 acres burned, 70% on 5 days; 2014, 12,304 acres burned, 62% burned in 5 days; 2015, 12,123 acres burned and 67% in 5 days.
View the annual burning reports HERE.
Oregon law now limits grass seed burning to 15,000 acres annually in the Willamette Valley. Prior to 1991, 250,000 acres were burned annually, and between 1999 and 2009, the limit was 65,000 acres.
In 2010, the actual number of acres burned was less than 13,000.
The Smoke Management Program of the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) measures smoke impact levels with nephelometers in Portland, Sweet Home, Lyons, Salem, Silverton and Carus.
ODA records and analyzes phone calls concerning field burning. These calls often come from areas where no grass fields are being burned. The smoke is often coming from municipal brush burning, forest fires or other sources.
A permanent ban on thermal sanitation would lead to more erosion, more sediment in streams, more dust in the air and greater use of pesticides.
A ban would put some farms out of business. Since a lot of this land is not suited to other crops, it would probably be converted to non-farm uses. Thousands of acres of grass field ground cover would be lost, leading to more erosion, putting more sediment in streams. Water quality would be lower. Jobs and income would also be lost.
A permanent ban on all field burning would also force these farmers to use more pesticides to control weeds, insects and disease in their crops. A large majority of Oregonians is opposed to increased pesticide use.
In the Willamette Valley, field burning is regulated under rules adopted by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the State Fire Marshal and the ODA. The ODA manages the Smoke Management Program and makes daily decisions regarding all agricultural burning as set forth in the rules. The DEQ has the authority to reduce or halt field burning if economic alternatives exist or if public health is threatened.
Grass seed farmers fund ongoing research to improve farming methods. In 2009, grass seed farmers spent $300,000 funding research to find alternatives to burning.