Tag Archives: Oregon Ryegrass Commission

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 7

Meet Mark Mellbye – Oregon’s ‘Johnny Appleseed’ of Annual Ryegrass – Part 1

As you may have read, Oregon grass seed growers and the state’s Ryegrass Commission were largely responsible for giving the Midwest cover crop initiative a substantial push over the past 25 years, as has been summarized in previous posts.

The growers you’ve read about in this series, namely Don Wirth and Nick Bowers, both named another Oregonian for acknowledgement, who put a considerable imprint on the project’s success. That man is Mark Mellbye.

Mellbye was raised in Oregon and earned two ag-related degrees from the state’s land grant college in Corvallis – Oregon State University (yes, another OSU!). He joined the Peace Corps after his first graduation and spent 18 months in Lesotho, teaching science and math, then another year traveling throughout Africa.

Before taking a position back at his alma mater, in 1986, Mark was an extension agent in Washington State. The nature of his position at OSU, he said, matched the state’s interest in helping to promote Oregon ag products, and that’s why he was able to spend so much time with Midwest cover crops in the past 25 years.

“A large part of my work in Oregon was to respond to local growers’ requests,” Mark said, “to work on projects of use to them.” Before he retired, Mark was the District Agronomist, overseeing OSU Extension projects in three counties, collectively known as “the grass seed capital of he world”. “The other aspect of my job, and the University was very supportive of this, was to help extend the marketplace for Oregon seed. The Midwest cover crop initiative was the focus.”

He added, “Of course, I was only marginally responsible for what happened with annual ryegrass adoption in the Midwest, but it’s impressive to think that when we started in the late ‘90s, there was no annual ryegrass seed sales to the Midwest whatsoever. Today, there’s upwards of 20 million pounds being shipped there for cover crop use annually, out of about 200 million pounds of annual ryegrass seed produced in Oregon.”

Mike Plumer’s name is forever linked with pioneering cover crops in the Midwest. What is less known is that Plumer, the Illinois crop advisor, didn’t consider annual ryegrass as a possible cover crop until he met Mark in 1997 and they began working together. Until then, Mike had been dabbling with cereal rye, winter wheat, hairy vetch and peas as cover crop potentials. And, as those who knew Mike understood, he was very principled and would immediately balk if he sensed he was being used for some commercial purpose, including the sales of annual ryegrass.

For the cover crop project to succeed, it would have to succeed on a number of fronts. After all, change is hard for most people, and new things tend to have bugs to work out before they are widely accepted.

“One hurdle was that the equipment needed to plant any seed into a no-till field – whether you’re talking corn, soybean or cover crop seeds – was in the process of significant upgrade and modification,” Mark said. “Today, machines can consistently plant those seeds into residue and even into green standing cover crops. Another hurdle was that the nature of annual ryegrass growth in cash crops was an unknown, but the notion was already out there that it should not be trusted. There was a suspicion, generated mostly by weed scientists, that annual ryegrass would become uncontrollable if it got loose in Midwest cornfields.”

“We’ve largely cleared those hurdles,” Mark said, “and we’re on our way to clearing the next one, which is largely educational. It may take the next generation of growers to accept the idea that conventional tillage is too expensive, and that despite the learning curve, cover crops are better for the wallet, for the soil and for the environment.”

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US – Part 4

Learning by Doing; Importance of Innovators and Early Adopters – Part 1

When Nick Bowers joined the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, he was a third-generation family member to do so. His grandfather was among the founders of the Commission, a grower-funded group that promotes use of ryegrass in a variety of ways. It’s strictly a volunteer gig.

When Nick joined, he probably had no idea that he was about to become a leader and champion of cover crops in the Midwest. He didn’t know that in doing so, he would be helping to build quality back into depleted soil, where the bulk of corn and soybeans in the US are grown. Maybe he was surprised that it would result in a new business for him, in addition to his family farm. “And,” he said, “I would never have guessed in 2000 that by 2020 all but 10 percent of my farm would be in no-till.”

As the Chair of the Commission, Nick was there when the idea hatched to test annual ryegrass as a cover crop in the Midwest. He and other Oregon seed growers donated annual ryegrass seed they’d grown to help jumpstart the project. That initiative is now 25 years old and continues to bring market development and research of cover crops to new audiences.

Nick was among the first Oregon seed growers to visit the Midwest, along with Commission administrator Bryan Ostlund. There came dozens more trips as the years went by. “It was at a time I could easily travel, when my kids were younger and in school,” Nick said. “There were years when I was back east for a week a month,” he added. Nick, other growers and a career extension agent from Oregon State University, Mark Mellbye, were committed to seeing the project through and introducing it properly. “Mark was immensely helpful, both in Oregon and the Midwest,” Nick said. “It wasn’t about sales, but about research, field trials and education. I think our collective effort helped a lot, because you had university agronomists and even competing growers from Oregon emphasizing the same things over and over. It helped build credibility in the Oregon seed industry,” he added.

Nick recalls that, in the first few years of effort, Oregon growers sent only a few truckloads of annual ryegrass seed to growers in the Midwest. “It was tough finding people willing to try it out,” simply because it was novel, and it was a risk that successful farmers didn’t see a need to take. And I had quite a time of finding a proper storage facility for the seed we didn’t use right away,” he added. In fact, during one of his annual trips, Nick remembers noticing that a few pallets of seed had been broken into by mice and it had to be re-bagged. All of that changed as people began to find annual ryegrass easier than they thought to integrate into their no-till operation.

Nick said that initial success with “innovators” was important, because “early adopters” keep an eye on innovators, who were pretty excited at the results they were getting with annual ryegrass: erosion control, weed suppression, saving on nitrogen fertilizer and noticing a bump in yields.  Once the early adopters began buying seed, the sales of annual ryegrass began to multiply quickly. Some of them became seed distributors for Oregon growers. More importantly, they became the next tier of experienced trainers and educators. The cover crop revolution was growing roots.

In the next chapter, Nick and others will talk about the kind of “hands-on” work Oregon growers did to get cover crops accepted in the Midwest.

Annual Ryegrass – the Germ Seed of Cover Crop Adoption in the US

Part 3. From Pedestrian to Princess: Annual Ryegrass in Midwest Cornfields

Annual ryegrass has led a bit of a Cinderella life. Plain and pedestrian for a century or more, it was a go-to seed for jumpstarting green acreage quickly in city parks and ballfields, highway roadsides, golf course fairways and big estates around the world. Among its greatest assets over time: it’s easiness to germinate and affordability.

But then, in the mid 1990s, Oregon seed growers and the Ryegrass Commission gave Junior Upton an opportunity to see what the crop might do to slow the erosion on his thin, hilly acreage east of St. Louis. The old Cinderella seed did its job keeping soil in its place as spring rains tried to pry it loose. But the new Cinderella story, the thing nobody anticipated, was the crop’s deep rooting capability. In a couple of years on his no-till corn and beanfields, annual ryegrass roots were found at depths of four to five feet, having busted through the fragipan layers. The other ‘ah ha’ was that his corn production began to rise. Well, these three things helped add energy and excitement to a fledgling cover crop movement.  It was the first of what has become a long list of benefits, courtesy of annual ryegrass as a cover crop.

Junior and Mike Plumer weren’t shy about the results on Upton’s farm, with his yield on marginal land overtaking that of his neighbor’s acreage, which had historically been superior. But as with any new thing, Upton and Plumer found it challenging to convince others to try annual ryegrass. Farmers are wary of new gimmicks. Generation after generation has come to rely on more power, deeper rippers, and better chemistry to keep field production high. They’d say, “Conventional tillage was good enough for my pop and grandpa, so it’s good enough for me, too!” Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed three stages of truth: at first, most people ridicule it. Then as it gains traction, they vigorously oppose it. Finally, when it has become familiar and others are on board, they accept it and act like they’ve never doubted it in the first place.

Don Wirth said that, at each of those stages, you’ll find a different type of person. Those who see change as their friend and are always looking for a new angle he calls innovators. The next tier are the “early adopters”, who benefit from the innovators and put changes into effect quickly. The final group are those who, like Junior’s neighbors, wait to see how things turn out before getting their feet wet. There’s nothing wrong with any of the three groups, in fact it’s a natural thing. But it shows why it takes so many years to change habitual behavior in human beings.

Thankfully, we were able to find  more than a dozen innovators willing to cooperate with our project in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  What helped the project immensely were these three things:

  • The Oregon Ryegrass Commission commitment to a long term educational and marketing effort, backed by dollars contributed by Oregon seed growers themselves
  • Don Wirth, Nick Bowers, and a few others from the Oregon seed growing industry, continued to be of immense value, for their funding, their seed and their many voluntary trips to the Midwest to witness field trials, work with cooperating growers, go to trade shows and answer questions about annual ryegrass with people interested in cover crops.
  • Hiring Mike Plumer and Dan Towery to network, work with cooperating growers, attend trade shows, become active on regional and national boards related to agriculture, and spending tons of time out in the field, adding quality control to what was one big-ass experiment.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about some of the new benefits discovered in those early years, as well as some of the interesting partnerships formed, including with environmental groups eager to try new ways to clean up polluted Midwest waterways.

No-Till Farmer Magazine Broadcasts Tips on Cover Crops

No-Till Magazine’s article on cover crops is more cautionary than informative: it is helpful in advising Midwest corn and soybean growers to know where your cover crop seed comes from and make sure that what’s on the label is actually in the bag. You want something growing in your field that is genetically well-matched for the climate and soil.

Among the most popular cover crops featured: annual ryegrass, radish and clover. The article cites the importance of having a state where seed is grown to have some research and industry education behind the production and distribution of seed. The author mentions the Oregon Ryegrass Commission, for example, which has sponsored annual ryegrass research and farmer education in the Midwest for 15 years.

Success in developing a good cover crop program takes a trusted relationship…with your seed dealer, with your local crop advisors. Click here to see the whole article.