Valdosta Daily Times

Business

July 14, 2013

50 Years: Patten Seed Company

LAKELAND — In research conducted by the Small Business Administration, about half of all small businesses are still in business at the five-year mark. At the 10-year mark, that number has decreased to a third.

As you might imagine, the number goes down from there, though at a drastically reduced rate. With only a third of businesses crossing the 10-year line, crossing the 50-year line is a milestone, truly something to celebrate. Look at any company that’s lasted 50 years or more and you’ll find a story, a history.

Take Patten Seed Company. Incorporated in 1954, Patten is fast approaching its 60th anniversary. But the roots of it, go back even further, to 1893.

That’s when schoolteacher Robert L. Patten opened a general store in Downtown Lakeland. Although he sold seed, it was just part of a variety of items sold, including fertilizer, horse collars, and caskets. It would be many years before Patten’s in-law, Bill Roquemore, would build Patten Seed Company.

It was Roquemore’s work with Dr. Glenn Burton that helped sustain the company when it started out. At the time, golf was beginning to take off as a national sport, thanks in part to the advent of television. As such, more golf courses started being built across the nation, all of which needed grass, and not just any grass, but grass that could be mowed close and grow fast.

Burton had cultivated a type of Bermuda grass that was perfect for golf courses.

“For many years, that was our bread and butter,” said Ben Copeland, current president of Patten Seed Company. “No one had propagated grasses before. We got in the business of planting golf courses, mostly across North America.”

After Interstate 75 was completed in the late 1960s and the apartment boom took off in Atlanta, Patten Seed started selling sod to builders and homeowners. By 1980, the company had transitioned away from golf courses, mostly selling sod for residential and business use.

“Atlanta was the big market, but we shipped to Minnesota, New Orleans, Baltimore. There just weren’t that many people in the sod business.”

Now, there are a number of sod businesses, to the extent that you can only really sell sod nationally in a 150- to 200-mile radius; beyond that radius, there’s most likely another sod company.

“We have had to downsize. Now, we produce about 125 million square feet of sod a year.” While that’s still a gargantuan amount of sod, at Patten's peak it was producing twice that amount.

Still, it’s doing well. Part of that is due to smart expansion. Though headquartered in Lakeland, through the years Patten Seed has expanded to include locations in Fort Valley, Orangesburg, S.C., and Hendersonville, N.C.

And part of that is due to diversifying.

Patten has transitioned 1,600 acres of land into pecan orchards, giving them a crop that harvests in the fall and winter, compared to their sods, which heavily harvest in the summer. And though it started with carrying only a few types of seed, mostly Centi-seed and Bermuda, now Patten carries 10 different varieties of sod, with an 11th planned for next year.

With the population expanding, water has become more of an issue. Grasses with a high drought tolerance, that can sustain itself off of limited watering is where the industry is heading. It’s changing, yes, that’s nothing new. It’s been changing since 2008, since the 1990s, the ’80s, the ’60s, since the schoolteacher who decided to open a general store.

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