Drought in Jefferson County, Ore., is putting a heavy burden on the area’s farming community, affecting everything from crop production to equipment sales. But the drought is now having wider implications, causing price hikes for some varieties of seed. And the situation could worsen next year.
Troy Kuenzie, president of Pratum Co-op, which markets Jefferson County grass seed in the U.S. and overseas markets, said the price for some grass seed grown in Jefferson County has surged more than 50% over the past year.
Jefferson County farmers specialize in vegetable and grass-seed production and are globally dominant for some varieties. But most of the county is now in exceptional or extreme drought, forcing farmers to cut back their crop production. For some farmers, the water that was planned for the autumn watering of next year’s crop has already been exhausted.
The price hikes in the grass-seed market are felt mainly by buyers who sell seed to golf courses.
Marketplace prices have increased 50 cents to $1 per pound for perennial grasses, said Kuenzie, who is based in Salem and has worked with Pratum since 1998.
“Last year bluegrass was $1.20 in the market. Now it’s $2, … because of demand and also drought in the whole Pacific Northwest.”
Around 12,600 acres of Kentucky Bluegrass and poa trivialis grass are in production in Jefferson County, which produces 16 million pounds of seed, raising $40 million for growers, seed producers and seed companies in Madras, said Kuenzie.
That amount of crop makes Jefferson County a global player in the seed market. Roughly 20% of the U.S. supply of Kentucky bluegrass and 80% of the supply of poa trivialis seed comes from Jefferson County.
Poa trivialis is primarily used by golf course maintenance crews to keep fairways green in winter. Golf courses in Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Arizona rely on this type of grass to keep their fairways playable throughout the year. Kentucky bluegrass is also used on golf courses, as well as lawns and athletic fields.
U.S. buyers are not alone in paying higher prices. The market is also affecting seed buyers in China, Japan, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other countries.
“It is a devastating situation for Jefferson County farmers and businesses and for our customers nationally and internationally,” said Dean Boyle, the Madras Pratum Co-op site manager.
Pratum Co-Op has buyers spanning the globe. Its grass seeds, sold under the names Mountain View Seeds and Landmark Seeds, are sold in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Israel and parts of Europe. Not only are costs going up for the seeds, but it’s also getting harder to source them as availability dwindles.
Jefferson County also produces huge volumes of vegetable seed for farmers in the U.S. and overseas markets including Europe, Asia, South America and the Middle East. The Netherlands, Japan, and Russia are a few of the biggest buyers.
Roughly 40% of the world’s carrot seeds are also produced in Jefferson County, according to Ken Stout, chief executive officer for Central Oregon Seeds Inc., a seed processor in Madras. That amounts to $20 million to $30 million in annual sales.
Stout said the water allotment cuts have forced some farmers to abandon fields. Wickiup Reservoir, which supplies most of the water to Jefferson County farmers, is just 8% full and is expected to run dry in less than four weeks, leaving little prospect for fall planting.
Despite the disruption, Stout said it’s too soon to know if lower seed production will translate into higher prices for next year’s contracts.