From above, the five-acre flattened expanse of top soil dotted unevenly with construction equipment bears a striking resemblance to a child’s backyard sand pit.

This time next year, Washington State University’s new Perennial Grass Breeding and Ecology Farm research site will be a sea of green, replete with native grasses and highly sought-after hybrids.

Michael Neff, director of WSU’s graduate program in Molecular Plant Sciences, will head up the farm at its new site on the northern edge of the Pullman campus. He’ll be assisted by a field technician and two PhD students.

“What we’re really interested in doing is looking at seed germination – particularly in native western wheatgrass– determining how to take seeds from our USDA Plant Introduction partners and create varieties that are more efficient for production as well as having desirable end-use characteristics,” Neff said.

The move to a new site was prompted by plans for a substantial commercial redevelopment project at the research farm’s previous home near the corner of NE North Fairway Road and NE Terre View Drive.

Working with seed stocks maintained by the USDA, Neff and his students will also select for traits like uniformity and yield. These are critical in western wheatgrass, which is often used along the banks of highways thanks to its ability to cling tightly to topsoil. They’ll also work with a hybrid Texas-Kentucky Blue Grass, which is more drought resistant than Kentucky Blue Grass. Additionally, they are working on improving a Kentucky Blue Grass variety that will enable farmers to replace the practice of burning-off the grass at the end of the season with mowing.

Grass seedlings in pots
A collection of seedlings being grown inside greenhouses located on Washington State University’s Pullman campus.

“WSU is really fulfilling its historic mission and traditions by having a farm like this, where students gain the skills and experience necessary to go out into the industry while at the same time helping the university develop new varieties of turfgrass that we can make available to growers,” Neff said.

Better understanding which plant genes affect vernalization – flowering caused by cold weather – is another key goal for Neff and his team moving forward. A better understanding could allow farmers to brace for milder winters by applying plant hormones targeted at the genes critical to the flowering process.

Crews on site have already set the foundation of the farm’s multipurpose building. When finished, it’ll include an office space, a shop and a storage garage. Fundraising for two new endowments in support of the farm will be underway soon, Neff said, and would pay for its operating costs as well as for the addition of a conference room and a second faculty member. Whoever funds the larger of those two endowments – $5 million – also gets to name the farm.

With 18 turfgrass plots, the new research site will be exactly the same size as its predecessor.

In May of 2017, the WSU Board of Regents approved plans for a commercial redevelopment project on a northern parcel of campus that included the former research farm. Corporate Pointe Developers is undertaking the mixed-use project on 18.6 acres of leased land on campus.

The student housing component of the project will include 1,170 bedrooms and approximately 36,000 square feet of commercial and retail space – including a Farm Fresh grocery – which would be done in two phases.

WSU and Corporate Pointe are also working to develop high-end residential condominium units overlooking campus and the Palouse Ridge Golf Club.

Marketing students from WSU’s Carson College of Business gave input on student needs and tendencies as part of a two-year collaboration with Corporate Pointe.

Duane Brelsford, a 1981 WSU alumnus, is the president of Corporate Pointe Developers.

Turfgrass courses at WSU go back to 1955, when Al Law, field crops professor in agronomy & soils, began teaching the first Turfgrass class in the western United States. Pullman also hosted the first Northwest Turfgrass Conference, which is now in its 73rd year.

Artist rendering of mixed-use commercial development
Rendering of the mixed-use project planned near the Palouse Ridge Golf Club