A company with international flair

Johnston Seed Company (www.johnstonseed.com), based in Enid, Okla., does most of its business in the United States, but it has one product that is highly attractive to the overseas market: Riviera turfgrass seed. Although the variety was developed at Oklahoma State University as a strong grass for the American transition zone, it is finding a market in similar climates from France to Morocco, from Australia to Japan. The seed is even being used for the Olympics next year in China. It is hoped that success on a ball field there could lead to a lot of sales in the Far East.

“With a product like Riviera, it’s amazing the number of people we’ve been able to touch,” says Gene McVey, president of Johnston Seed.

Countries around the Mediterranean are planting a lot of bermudagrass seed from the U.S., including here at Tanka Golf Course on Sardegna Island, Italy, where fairways, roughs and tees are seeded to Riviera.

Johnston Seed is a subsidiary of Johnston Enterprises, a company that was started in 1893, when the area was still a territory, and the Johnston family has owned it continuously. The company owns other enterprises, such as an agricultural grain business, which is where McVey previously worked. He’s been with the seed division for five years.

The company was the first to produce and sell a proprietary seeded bermudagrass, the Guyman variety in 1984, McVey says. It, like Riviera, came from the turfgrass breeding program at Oklahoma State. Johnston Seed also sells several other types of grass seed, including forage grasses and two buffalograss varieties for turf purposes. It also produces wildflower seed.

Riviera, like its predecessor Yukon and its successor Patriot, was developed to address a particular problem: the odd mix of weather in Oklahoma, where the hot summers and extremely cold winters make it difficult to grow other quality turf varieties. In this so-called transition zone, cool-weather varieties require too much water in the summer, and the warm-weather varieties, such as hybrid Bermudas, have disease and survival issues in the winter.

This seeded variety, which addresses all of those issues and also makes a high-quality turf, has become an important turfgrass not only in Oklahoma, but in the entire transition zone across the United States. It should not come as a surprise, then, that the variety has found homes all around the world in regions that have similar transition problems.

Riviera has proven itself throughout the U.S. transition zone, such as on the University of Arkansas baseball field, which is what the 2008 Olympics baseball field in China should look like next summer.

“We’re very, very proud of that one,” McVey says. “We’re on every continent except Antarctica.”

The crucial issue is that the variety is seeded. Other varieties, such as the popular Patriot, which has even more cold hardiness than Riviera, might do as well in other countries, but vegetatively propagated varieties such as Patriot encounter quarantine issues when it is suggested that sod or springs be sent overseas. And, McVey says, some of the popular hybrid varieties overseas do not retain the genetic purity of the Riviera seed over time.

Josep Cirera, agronomist and turfgrass manager for Semillas Fito S.A. in Barcelona, Spain, the European and North African distributor, says that the seed has been successfully used from Frankfurt, Germany, to southern Morocco. It has become particularly popular in the Mediterranean region, including southern France, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

“The variety has been seeded in athletic fields, polo fields, soccer fields and also lawns for high-quality, low water consumption and high wear tolerance,” Cirera says. It has become most popular, possibly, for golf courses. Among the top courses where Riviera has been 100 percent seeded in fairways, tees and roughs are Prince de Provence in France, Golf Porto Santo in Portugal, Bonalba in Spain and Dona Fugata in Italy. Its range is gradually moving east into Greece and Turkey.

Cirera says there are several reasons for this. The primary one is that it is the most cold-tolerant turfgrass of a high quality, and it compares in quality with Tifway 419, but is easier to establish. It can withstand temperatures as cold as 5 degrees.

Riviera also tolerates summer heat well. Cirera says that not only is it heat tolerant, but it is also resistant to salty conditions and drought. It is viewed as a water conserver in an area where water is at a premium. It also is wear-tolerant and greens up three weeks before other similar seeded varieties, enabling play to start early. Its sports turf uses are for soccer (football in Euro-speak) and polo.

McVey says that at least one baseball field and possibly more will be planted in Beijing, China, for the 2008 Olympics, and that is a great opportunity for the seed to gain recognition throughout the world, and especially in Asia.

“Beijing is a very harsh climate,” he says, comparing it to Woodward, Okla., though the Chinese capital is higher in latitude. Seed has been sent there for an April planting for the Olympics. He has heard that the quality of sod and availability of sod-moving equipment in China is not good, which opens the door to quality seeded varieties. With the economies of China and India booming, and standards of living rising, the opportunity for turf development in those countries is high. Both have regions where Riviera’s transition zone adaptability can pay off.

McVey says that some turf facilities in Asia are planted to 419, but the feedback is that much of it is not certified plantings. Thus, performance is not always true, leading to nonuniform turfgrass. This is opening up the market to Riviera seed over a vast, booming region. One concern that the company has is that the seed, which can’t be used to raise seed for the next year, could be used for sod growing. The danger there is that the grass would not remain true over the years, and that could give Riviera a bad name. Genetic purity in its seed is how the company made its reputation, and it wants to deal with reputable people overseas so it can maintain that image.

About 60 percent of Johnston Seed’s sales of Riviera are already to overseas customers, and that number could jump substantially in the future as new regions see the variety’s adaptability. McVey claims that Riviera turf consumes 40 percent less water than cool-season grasses, and that has become a big selling feature. It has an advantage over vegetatively propagated varieties in that seed can be saved for a long period of time if stored properly, while sod and sprigs must be used quickly.

The company, which employs about 40 people, also does a good business in buffalograss seed, almost all of it domestic. It currently produces and sells two varieties that have come from the University of Nebraska breeding program. Cody is a Southwestern variety that has good drought tolerance and is being used all the way into Arizona. Bowie is a variety that has a cold tolerance that makes it popular in the northern tier of states and Canada.

“Bermudagrass does well up to the I-70, to the East Coast,” McVey says. “The buffalograss goes in above that.” He points out that Riviera was just used in the spring of 2007 to renovate the Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium at the University of Arkansas, as well as a baseball field, and those plantings look successful.

McVey says that all of Johnston Seed’s bermudagrass seed increase plantings are in the state of Oklahoma, though they are spread over much of the state. It is on about 2,000 acres of irrigated land so that a reliable seed source can be obtained every year, and the company owns some ground, leases some and contracts with other farmers for extra acreage. Its average yield of bermudagrass seed is from 200 to 400 pounds per acre. Apart from the California/Arizona region, this is the largest bermudagrass seed production region in the U.S. It is all overseen by company farm production manager John Lamle, who also oversees research for the company.

McVey says that Lamle runs a small bermudagrass breeding program, though he also dabbles in developing new forage and biomass varieties. All of its research is aimed at developing Oklahoma-adapted grasses, including switchgrass, which is being looked at as a source of energy. There’s even an interest in that product overseas, so the company’s future will continue to be in the export trade.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.