January 1, 2013

Water pressure

Turf seed industry works to breed cultivars with lower water needs.


Is grass a villain? Even though plants and landscaping prevent runoff, reduce temperatures, and provide many other environmental and health benefits, public perception is strongly biased against “water-wasting” grass.

To be sure, the planet’s freshwater resources are limited; water is gold. Water conservation is top-of-mind these days for all green industry sectors. In response, turf grass seed producers are embracing the challenge of breeding new cultivars that require less water.

Market demand for less-thirsty turf is real, but seed producers looking to meet that demand face a long and expensive road. It can take 10 years and up to $100,000 to develop a new cultivar, yet few varieties have market lives longer than five years.

Tell the story with numbers
Since research is so important to address today’s water issues, three turf grass seed producers founded the Turfgrass Water Conservation Alliance (TWCA) in 2009. The Alliance’s NexGen research station in Oregon’s Willamette Valley recently hosted a field day to spotlight its research on drought-tolerant cultivars, and to promote the water conservation message.

Drought tolerance is a general term used to describe cultivars that require less water. Researchers are actually looking at several traits, including how long it takes water-deprived turf to go dormant, and how quickly the turf recovers.

The research station features a large rain-out shelter, so turf plots receiving measured, documented water amounts can be studied. Further, this group makes the proud claim of removing subjectivity from dormancy determinations. TWCA researchers have devised a light box that can isolate and digitally photograph the plots. The photo is then analyzed by software that assigns precise numeric values to the plot’s green, brown or in-between colour — replacing judgment calls with scientific accuracy.

The effort’s public relations message centres around promoting drought-tolerant turf through its solid research and hard numbers. TWCA researchers can support claims their cultivars require 30 per cent less water before going dormant. Stated a different way, branded varieties developed under TWCA research stay green 30 days longer than traditional cultivars.

Value in the marketplace
Manderley Turf Products supplies sod to large areas of Canada. The company became interested in drought-tolerant turf seed several years ago through the green building movement: specifically, helping customers capture LEED credits for using turf with lower water requirements.

Sean Moher, market development manager at Manderley, says the company has expanded its efforts to promote the new cultivars to contractors. While the contractors are initially skeptical, he says the new cultivars can benefit them two ways: “First, contractors can go for customers interested in sustainability. And second, they can go after the lazy people, who don’t want to do as much hose work.” Moher has done the math to support the value of water-conserving turf; while the sod price is only a couple of pennies more expensive per square foot, an installer can justify charges that enhance his margins nicely.

Manderley’s Quebec sod farms will plant 20 per cent drought tolerant seed next year, and is moving toward half of its production in the future. Its sod farms in Alberta are planted 80 per cent in seed with lower water requirements.

The search for cultivars with low water needs is certainly not a new movement, according to Paul Stevens, Pickseed Canada’s manager of professional turf. “Working on drought tolerance has been a core focus of our program for years. It is a slow process.” The company’s research efforts take place at its own Willamette Valley research farm, and through academic partnerships with universities such as Rutgers and Oregon State. Stevens agrees that standards and credible, third-party research is the key to marketplace success. “We need to do a better job of selling value.”

A new normal
The pricing premium for drought tolerant varieties is modest, in the neighbourhood of 10 or 15 per cent. Will industry embrace the extra cost? Dick Olson, president of ProSeeds in Jefferson, Ore., says yes, “The market will get it, eventually.”

Real-life results do not always mirror research, but the new turf cultivars are encouraging. Ken Pavely, with Lawn Life of Orangeville, Ont., did some informal trials of drought tolerant varieties, both on his own and for clients. He found the turf stood up very well.

Pressure to lower landscape water requirements will not abate. In this environment, using grass seed that performs well with less water seems to be a no-brainer; according to Pavely, “It’s the real deal.”

Research takes centre stage
Don’t miss the IPM Symposium, From the Ground Up, at Congress 2013. Blue-ribbon presenters include turf grass researcher Russ Nicholson of Pennington Seed, Tony Bass with Super Lawn Technologies, Katerina Jordan of the Guelph Turfgrass Institute, Michael Brownridge with Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, and more. Now in its 47th year, the IPM (Integrated Pest Management) Symposium helps industry — and society —achieve healthy turf and plants through sound cultural practices. It takes place Monday, January 7 at the Toronto Congress Centre. To register, visit www.locongress.com.