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Growing a business from seed

LAWTON, Okla. (AP) _ If you think watching grass grow is boring, you'll get an argument from Victor and Michael Warner.

In fact, it was watching grass grow that led them to found what is now a thriving business, Warner Brothers Seed Company, which is sending native grass seed all across the country.

It wasn't a decision that came naturally; although the two helped neighbors with farm work, they cut their teeth in their father's business, O.V. Warner Concrete Construction. When it came time to go to college they headed to the University of Oklahoma, where Victor Warner studied mechanical engineering and Michael Warner went into petroleum engineering.

Then came the energy crash of the 1980s. Formerly high flying oil and gas companies began slashing payrolls, banks folded and construction projects died on the vine. The Warner brothers reconsidered their career choices and returned to Lawton to study business administration at Cameron University.

While still in school, Victor Warner took notice of a field planted in a bluestem grass recently released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

``I was doing some work real close to this field that has this new grass on it,'' he said, ``.... and I was just amazed how good it looked and how productive it was.

``You could just see it grow,'' he said. ``I said, 'Man, there's some possibilities here.'''

The possibilities did indeed look good; the grass offered hope for land that had been overgrazed or was unimproved, so they decided to try to make a business of it.

It was, Mike Warner said, a ``three year learning curve.'' They bought a special harvester to plant the seed and learned the arcane arts of drying, processing and cleaning the tiny seeds and started planting grass for area farmers.

They bought some equipment and modified other machines as they built up their stock of seeds to more than 20 grasses, adding native grasses such as buffalo grass, little bluestem and switchgrass to the original Old World bluestems.

They started out in a series of rented buildings and finally in 1997 constructed a 20,000-square-foot shop and warehouse south of Lawton to hold the expanding business.

From where they stand, they've only scratched the surface, The native grasses need less fertilizer and water, a vital consideration when it's as dry as it has been, and can make bigger crops than other grasses, the Warners say. And farmers have been buying.

Wheat is the main crash crop in much of the area, but marginal cropland is increasingly being turned into native grassland. That gives small farmers, especially older farmers who don't want the hassle of dealing with wheat, a crop that takes less expense and care and a permanent source of grazing and hay.

``That's been a pretty big movement the past two years,'' Victor Warner said. ``There are acres and acres that can be improved out here. ... It'd be like having two or three times the land.''

The two started out with 300-400 acres of leased land to grow their crops. Now they plant on 1,400 acres they own and lease some additional land. Their prime crops are in Tillman County where underground water is plentiful. Native grasses may be tough, but they need good water to produce seeds consistently and keep the company in business.

The Warners don't live by grass seed alone; they also sell wildflower seed that they buy elsewhere. And they aren't confined to agriculture. Native grasses and wildflowers are used in landscaping, to improve habitat for wildlife and prevent erosion. Switchgrass, a tough native grass that provides luxuriant forage, also is being touted as a source of raw material for making ethanol to power automobiles.

And their services aren't limited to providing seed. The company plants its seeds on roadsides and pipelines to prevent erosion and for low maintenance landscaping, and part of their business is making hay from their crops.

And to make sure they have enough work, they build ponds and erosion control structures, making it a year-round business.

But to a large extent, they're still bedeviled by the weather as other farmers are. It takes patience, planting the minuscule seeds requires care and special equipment, and harvesting means you have to be there at just the right time.

``When it's ready, you better be there or the wind will sure harvest it for you,'' Victor Warner said.
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