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Upton company promotes native grass

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Products naturally adapt to Kentucky weather variables

By Amber Coulter

Very few Kentucky lawns are coated with the types of grass that grew in the state when settlers came.

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Consumers hauling major name-brand bags of grass seed home aren’t sowing those native grasses, either.

Bermuda grass, St. Augustine grass and even Bluegrass came along with new settlers to suit their European lawn tastes.

The prairie codgrass, switchgrass and other native grasses that sprang up in the state since time beyond memory was replaced or grazed by cattle down to dusty, barren fields.

An Upton company wants to change that.

Native grasses are hailed for being well-adapted to the environment from which they originated. That means they can stand up to the climate with less watering, fertilizing and other maintenance. Those native plants also tend to provide the best habitats for animals and to attract insects that promote pollination, said Chris Blackford, vice president of sales and marketing of Roundstone Native Seed.

“We like to say that we’re farmers first and we’re conservationists before we’re businessmen,” he said.

The business specializes in growing native grass and wildflowers, offering 154 species. About 40 are grown on-site. Company leaders plan to increase that number.
Those seeds run a higher price than non-native retail competitors, but Roundstone products have about 15 percent more live seed per pound. The company carefully avoids other fillers, such as weed seed, dirt and sticks, that boost a seed bag’s weight, but not its effectiveness, Blackstone said.
To avoid filling bags with unwanted materials, Roundstone has adapted almost all of its equipment to comb through seed to make sure it’s as pure and live as possible.
Employees have to attach screens and make other alterations to farm machinery because there’s not a wide enough market at this point for the sale of native grasses to encourage farm equipment companies to develop tools specifically for that industry, Blackstone said.

Roundstone also uses yearly prescribed fires to prepare fields for new planting, using the 10 certified firefighters on staff to help control the blazes.

Blackstone said people at trade shows didn’t recognize Roundstone’s product at first because its quality was much higher than its competitors.

“It’s not that we set out to do that,” he said. “It’s just that we didn’t know to do any different.”

During the past five years, native grass seed quality gradually has been getting better, Blackstone said.

It’s still not at the quality he thinks it should be, and Roundstone cleans seed it buys from other producers, Blackstone said.

“It’s still not good enough to put my name on it,” he said.

Roundstone started 16 years ago as a cooperative and has spent the past 10 under its current name, Blackford said.

“At some point, somebody’s got to be the boss,” he said.

The bosses at Roundstone are Randy Seymour and his son, John. Even since Randy Seymour retired, he has still offered input to keep the business operating and on mission.

Blackstone said Roundstone employees are committed to the cause and advise state and federal government officials about the importance of using native grasses and the best way to promote their growth.

“You can go home even after a tiring day and know that what you do might make a difference on the environment,” he said.

Amber Coulter can be reached at (270) 505-1746 or acoulter@thenewsenterprise.com.