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Use of turf grass leads to federal lawsuit between Oklahoma company and Topeka sod farm

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, March 7, 2013, at 9:57 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 7, 2013, at 5:07 p.m.

The grass used on some McPherson College athletic fields is part of a lawsuit directed against a large Topeka-area grass farm and golf course operator.

An Enid, Okla., turf seed marketing company called Johnston Enterprises filed suit recently in U.S. District Court in Wichita.

Johnston is the exclusive licensee of a high-quality proprietary variety of Bermuda grass called Riviera that was developed a decade ago by the Oklahoma Agricultural Station.

In 2005, Johnston signed a sub-licensing agreement with JJ&J, a company doing business as the Topeka Sod Farm, to develop and install certified Riviera sod.

In the suit, Johnston contends that JJ&J grew, harvested and installed the grass in violation of its licensing agreement.

As technology has advanced, more legal challenges have arisen across the country regarding the development of plant seeds and strains, and to what extent developers can control the use of those plants and seeds.

In its suit, Johnston argues that JJ&J not only has damaged the product’s reputation, it also has harvested it in such as way as to spread the grass far more than allowed under the agreement, according to the lawsuit. Because Bermuda grass can be planted in sprigs from which will grow a full lawn, an acre of the Riviera sod can be developed into hundreds of acres of grass.

At McPherson College, according to the plaintiff’s attorney Mark Henry of Fayetteville, Ark., JJ&J installed the grass poorly on several fields. Any claims by the college should be directed to JJ&J, according to the suit.

“When you sell something by reputation, you have to protect that reputation,” Henry said. “And we want to make the college happy.”

Johnston seeks not only financial damages, but to block further sales of Riviera by the Topeka company. It also want JJ&J to destroy any installed grass and require the JJ&J to account for all of the protected seed.

Rick Farrant, owner of Topeka Sod Farm and of Great Life Golf and Fitness, a company that manages 19 golf courses, mostly in northeastern Kansas, downplayed the significance of Johnston’s claims on Wednesday, saying that just 4 acres of the company’s 400 acres of turf grass is planted in Riviera Bermuda grass.

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or dvoorhis@wichitaeagle.com.

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