Roseau, Minn. — A winter-hardy grass could be a Minnesota co-op’s ticket to sustainable green of another kind.

RL Growers Cooperative, a group of 50 farmers in Roseau and Lake of the Woods counties, started cleaning its first batch of P-101, a perennial ryegrass variety, in January.

The ryegrass seed will find its way into lawn mixes used by groundskeepers, says RL President Richard Magnusson. “It’s also used on southern golf courses. They overseed it in the early part of the fall.” In the South, when many other grasses go dormant, P-101 will be “starting to green up, so they have green year round,” Magnusson says.

RL Growers owns exclusive rights to P-101, which means they can control production and marketing of the ryegrass seed, Magnusson says.

Seed partners

About half the RL Growers, along with Northern Farmers Co-op in Williams, Minn., have also invested in Northern Excellence Seeds, which built a $2 million seed-cleaning plant across the street from Northern Farmers elevator.

The group was offered cleaning equipment from Marvin Seeds in Warroad, Minn., with the understanding that the cleaning plant — the third in the region — would be built in the area, says Magnusson, who is also a Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers vice president.

Teaming with Northern Farmers Co-op made sense from a production standpoint, Magnusson says. The co-op’s elevator already had employees and a scale. The peak of the grass-cleaning season is opposite the elevator’s peak season, so one manager runs both operations.

Much of the seed will be sold to wholesalers such as Scott’s, Magnusson says. Some will be sold locally to companies such as LaCrosse Seeds in Wisconsin and Twin Cities Seeds. They have also looked at the consumer market, Magnusson admits, but as yet, “it’s a tough nut to crack.”

Grasses ‘r us

In addition to winter hardiness, P-101 “is tolerant to Assure herbicide. There’s no way we can market that to the end user, but it’s a benefit to the producer,” Magnusson says. “One problem in northern Minnesota is quack grass.”

Ryegrass isn’t the only grass seed produced in the border counties. Growers in northern Minnesota have been producing bluegrass seed for more than 40 years. “It’s one of the crops that has enabled farmers to keep growing up here,” Magnusson says. “It thrives in our climate.”

Reed canary, timothy and birdsfoot trefoil are also grown in the region. Magnusson estimates that 50,000 northern acres are in production for grasses and clovers.

Northern Excellence can process up to seven million pounds of seed a year, Magnusson says, giving it ample growing room from its current two million. “Farmers are looking towards the future; they’re expanding their acres. Grass seed is one of the most profitable parts of their farms.”

In their hand

RL Growers plans to test other new releases, Magnusson adds, and Northern Excellence is “pursuing contract production with other companies.” RL-owned varieties will “put the power back in the producers’ hands,” Magnusson says.

“There’s no sense in producing too much. If we control production, we don’t glut the market … and we keep the premium in the market.”