So, you look out at your lawn and you see some bare spots. You run to your nearest Westlake, Lowe’s, Home Depot store and buy the grass seed on the shelf. The bag might say things like “Heat Tolerant” or “Sun & Shade” or “Dense Shade”, etc. You pick the product, run home and toss it on your lawn. Presto, with a little love, you have new baby grasses.
Like you, I had no idea what went into putting those labels on the bags and getting them on the shelves….until last week. I was honored to accompany my hubby (Williams Lawn Seed) on a live show and tell trip to Oregon. For 4 days, I was a mile deep in the lawn seed business, and it was incredible.
The first day, Pennington Seed treated us to several speakers at their lab facility NexGen. These speakers, as I’ve so liberally called them, consisted of researchers, field technicians, plant breeders, etc. They took us out to their fields to show us their drought testing, wear testing, growth testing, color testing and more. There’s plants in tubes everywhere being tested for their tolerance to everything and their ability to grow and keep color no matter the situation. I really geeked out learning about the cultivars that are able to withstand drought for more than 60 days, and also to learn that drought tolerance and heat tolerance are two totally separate tests. We learned about DIA (digital imaging analysis) which is newer and completely objective as opposed to the old school subjective analysis from humans, walking around studying grass with charts. DIA can show in real time exactly how each type of grass is performing. This gives the research facilities a TON of data to help analyze the best cultivars. They also have a place where they test mowing height. They take different types of grasses and mow them at various heights to see how it performs. Really? Keep your fescue tall and your bluegrass short. I got to check out a machine they made that simulates the wear and tear created by soccer games. They run this over different grasses in strips to study how well each one holds up. And yes, I buried my toes in this…some of the most beautiful real grass I’ve ever seen in real life.And getting to walk through and view all these different species–how great!?! Those tags told us what we were looking at. Clever, blue was for bluegrass. And then? We got to go to an actual farm and watch the swathed grass go into the combine to separate out the seed. It goes into one process to sort out the bigger trash then goes into this huge shaker machine to further sort the seed from the trash. This farm actually does the cleaning and sorting itself and ships the seed straight to Pennington’s warehouse for packaging….which we also got to tour. Giant bags of seed go into funnels and then get packaged either for bulk shipment or in the bags you see at the store. I couldn’t get over the size/height of the warehouses we visited. They had sky high stacks of pallets of seeds. Walls kept everything in place and the warehouses were as clean and neat as they could be. There’s a real concern over cross-contamination in the seed business, so each machine will process what it can, then it gets thoroughly cleaned and prepped to process the next type of seed. This was true both at the farm and the warehouse. And, can you imagine, the entire year’s worth of product gets processed and shipped out or stored within 3 weeks. That’s field to bag, ya’ll.
One of the presentations came from the TWCA (Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance). This organization is beginning to work with seed producers all over the world to put their stamp of approval on types of grass that perform better than others when it comes to drought tolerance. Water conservation is becoming a growing concern throughout the US and other regions and everyone is working to make sure we can still enjoy our lawns and all the benefits of live grass for years to come. And, wow, talk about a grass that’s drought tolerant, check out the bermuda grass testing in this pic. This is over a month without rain.
Over the next few days, we were taken to more sod fields, nurseries, labs, farms and some very enjoyable events. At Pure Seed, again we saw some soccer field type testing happening. 25 runs with the machine was equal to the effect of 105 soccer games with cleats.
I was totally intrigued by some grass they are testing called seashore paspalum. An awesome grass that loves saltwater that can stay weed free simply by adding salt. It’s pretty and soft, much like the bluegrass and rye grasses.
One of my favorite stops on the trip was JB Instant Lawn & Nursery. Everyone there was so personable, patient and inviting, the place felt like home from the time we stepped off the bus. The owner’s home is on the grounds and her landscaping is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Check this out!
We actually got to sit and have lunch with the owner….who insisted on having her fresh blueberries on every table as well as packages of hazelnuts. I think I could’ve sat and listened to her for hours talk about the farm, the house the birds and everything in between. So very gracious and knowledgeable. (And those blueberries? Josh and I were trying to figure out how we could stuff them in our pockets.) We toured their hazelnut field and learned that pristine growing conditions exist on the 45th parallel worldwide. Turkey is the main producer of hazelnuts, and they’d love to expand their hazelnut growing business if they could just find enough land for sale in Willamette Valley. Hazelnut trees are pretty distinct and we saw them on hundreds of acres in the valley. They’re a relatively new crop gaining much popularity in the region since the demand has increased worldwide. Hazelnuts drop to the ground when they’re ready and then get collected by these cool sweeping machines for processing. (Should I mention the cold bags of dark chocolate covered hazelnuts they handed us while standing in the hot field? Oh my!!) Here’s a hazelnut field.
And this was my favorite piece of equipment…I REALLY wanted to drive it.
Mountain View was our next stop on the tour. They clean and process seed from various farmers and package it for bulk and retail. It was cool seeing the trucks come in and out of this place as they stopped on the scale to be weighed. Each farmer’s seed gets its own bin, and just like the other facilities, everything has to be cleaned and kept pristine to avoid any cross contamination. Their seed storage warehouse was enormous with all sorts of ways to make each room into a big box or a set of boxes for storing. Think transformers or origami. Pretty cool.
Again, all of this gets done within a few short weeks!!! Homemade marionberry cobbler was on the menu at Mountain View. None of us really recognized what a marionberry was, but we do know they were delicious! After Mountain View, we were off to Agri Seed Testing. This facility does the most tedious work I’ve ever seen. Seed samples are sent to them for testing and they sit down with a light, magnifying glass and various tiny tools and sort out the good seeds from the weeds and noxious grasses. I was curious to find out what it took to become one of them and the answer I received was shocking. 5 years to be able to test a tiny sample of large seed on their own. 10 years to test a medium sample of large seed on their own. 15+ years to be qualified to test large samples or any samples of smaller seeds, like rye. They also do grow-outs to measure the percentage of viable seed in the samples. The group couldn’t get over the close quarters and the seemingly mind-numbing process of this. There’s apparently a large number of candidates that don’t make the cut or give up on becoming certified.
So, just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we arrived at Willamette Valley Vineyards. Nothing like a wine tasting, great views and a huge meal to end a long day of learning. Wow, wow and more wow. If you get a chance, stop by and see these people. The place is incredible!
The next day we were up and running early for a tour of GK Machine in Donald, OR or, as they call themselves, The Donald. All that equipment we had drooled over for days? They make it all. Start to finish. Cutting, welding, painting, fabricating—it’s incredible. Looking up, we saw all sorts of cranes running throughout the warehouse ceiling. My favorite quote, “It’s better to be over craned than under.” True that. They can lift huge machines completely off the ground if needed and move them to another area. The best part? I got to see my favorite piece of equipment again….hi there handsome!
There was so much equipment in this place that seemed to do magic. A comment was made to the effect, ‘you put this in here and push this and then poof, it just works.’ I decided it was fairy dust. How about this cute little bicycle as an example of the small, detailed capability of the laser cutter?
They also have giant paint bays for powder coating or painting the equipment. No these aren’t clothing racks ladies, they’re drying racks. It was too fun to chat with our tour guide about how they just built whatever they needed. Need another room? Here’s a door, a room, a table, some equipment—viola! Done! From GK Machine we were able to take a quick break and check out The Donald Hazelnut Festival, which had all the makings you’d expect of a cool, small town. Car show, homemade items in booths, even a street with our name. Thanks for the hospitality! We’re off to the next stop!
Last, but definitely not least, was Oregon Turf & Tree Farms. They rolled out the green carpet for us and took us on a tour of their sod fields, Japanese maple field and even a co-op garden center they’ve been working on. This garden center is set up to be able to accept product from many growers on consignment. They inventory and label each product according to type and where it came from. Once it’s purchased, the money goes directly into the growers account. This system seemed pretty awesome since you would have such a variety of items to choose from. Check out all these trees! It’s a landscaper’s heaven!
Just as it seemed the fun was coming to an end, we land at Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum. We were in awe of the amount of exhibits in the two museums. Everything you could ever want to see is here, and more! We took about a zillion pictures here, the most impressive of which was the Spruce Goose that filled the entire building.
Even though we were exhausted from over 600 miles of touring the beautiful Willamette Valley, our trip wouldn’t have been complete without a little R&R and personal sightseeing. Sunday took us to an excellent brunch at Multnomah Falls, a stop at The Goonies house in Astoria, and finally an amazing few hours at Cannon Beach. Our hearts and brains were finally full (and our feet were tired—over 25 miles walked on this trip!) Hope to see you again, Oregon! I heart you.