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By Dan Armstrong

Willamette Valley grass seed producers need some alternatives. The economic downturn has pulled the turf out from beneath the grass seed industry and, as the Capital Press reported in a July 10th front page article, "with housing starts down, golf courses cutting corners on seed purchases, and cattle numbers down, turf and forage seed sales have slowed dramatically since last fall when, as one seed executive put it, 'the valve just shut off.'" An Associated Press story a month later in the Eugene Register-Guard underscored the circumstances, saying one hundred million pounds of grass seed still remain from last year's harvest and 500 million more pounds will come in with 2009's harvest. The situation is pressing hard on every grass seed producer in the valley and is not likely to change any time soon.

Garanzo Beans
Maturing Garbanzo Beans in the Willamette Valley

It is generally accepted that housing starts are the key to any kind of grass seed recovery. So, if you believe the talking heads, the recession is over. Home values have undergone the necessary contraction. The bad paper that littered Wall Street is gradually being swept up, and while unemployment numbers still continue to increase, they are increasing at a slower rate. Current forecasts project that economic growth could move into positive territory by the end of 2009. We might see employment numbers tick slowly upward by the second quarter of 2010, and about the same time, housing starts will begin to percolate.

With some luck, and assuming all these other cautiously optimistic projections are accurate, the grass seed industry could begin its recovery by the summer of 2011. Throw in the backlog of inventory, both for homes and grass seed, and growers should anticipate no less than two years of poor seed prices and as many as three or four. And even then, no one's talking about a grass seed boom or two million housing starts like we saw in 2005. Grass seed will become profitable again, but it's fair to say it will never be like it was, and no matter what the timeframe for the turnaround, a wide-ranging discussion of alternative crops and expanded farm business models is more than appropriate right now.

Wheat is the most obvious substitute for grass seed. Not all grass seed acreage can produce wheat, but as recently as 1979, wheat was the dominant crop in the Willamette Valley. This is not news. Valley farmers have already begun to move that way. The grain crisis of 2007-8 prompted wheat acreage off a Willamette Valley record low of 30,000 acres in 2006-7 to over 120,000 in 2007-8, when wheat sold for $8.50 a bushel at harvest. The forecast for 2008-9 is near 200,000 acres, but wheat's now down about $4.50-5.00 a bushel. With the edge of profit in the vicinity of $6.00, wheat is at best a partial answer to the problem and is hindered by the fact that most of the grain storage and milling infrastructure that once existed in the valley is gone or out of use. A more likely solution involves looking back to the way the valley was farmed fifty or sixty years ago–and adjusting that to new market trends.

Food production, diversity, and local processing were central parts of Willamette Valley agriculture prior to the grass seed boom of the 1980s. Wheat and seed were still the largest crops by acreage. Large private and cooperative canneries contracted with local farmers for fruits and vegetables. Flax, oil seeds, and mint were also in the mix. That's the direction we should go. Recent experiments in the valley with dry-land beans suggest they could also be a viable rotation crop. Add buckwheat, teff, and even hemp, and we could turn our current blanket of grass seed into a patch-work quilt of diversified products. Organic production could also be a big part of the plan. For grains like barley, oats, and wheat, organic is worth several more dollars a bushel both for human and livestock consumption–and quite a bit of that could be sold to local buyers.

Expansion of processing in the valley is equally part of the solution. Considering the level of unemployment in Oregon, rebuilding the infrastructure to support this kind of agricultural transition would generate jobs and revive the local economy. Canneries, grain mills, local distribution operations, these are market solutions that will only get more attractive as fuel and freight prices rise.

Could a diversified approach with emphasis on food production really make up for what has been lost in the grass seed market? The numbers are remarkably encouraging. On average, grass seed grosses about $500 million per year in the Willamette Valley. That's way down this year, but even should that number drop to $250 million annually, there's plenty of market share in food production to more than make up for it. Currently the Willamette Valley populace, including Portland, spends more than $5 billion a year on food. What's notable about this is that more than ninety-five percent of that food is imported–meaning consumption of local food products is less than five percent. This seems almost absurd for a region that has the capacity to supply at least a quarter of that demand.

Crunch the numbers. If local food consumption were to double to ten percent, we recapture the lost $250 million of grass seed income. Should we build a few canneries, rejuvenate the grain infrastructure, and meet that twenty-five percent local food consumption potential, we're talking a billion dollar jump in gross agricultural proceeds. Given it may take three to five years for the grass seed industry to reach equilibrium, doesn't it makes more sense to use those three to five years focusing on rebuilding our local food system? In the end, you'd get greater crop diversity, fewer middle men, shorter freight routes, a surge of jobs in the food processing sector, and a decoupling from the whims of the global market.

The times are changing. Grass seed will always have a market, but the heydays are over. A smarter, more detailed management of the Willamette Valley is in order. No, it won't be as easy as growing seed, but in the big picture, it makes more sense. We've got a valley full of beautiful farmland and fertile soil–increased and diversified food production with the infrastructure to support it, there's a way to make good use of it for the next fifty years or more.

Prairie Fire

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