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Dr. Jan Weijer

By 1990, after 17 years of research, the retired University of Alberta (U of A) plant geneticist Dr. Jan Weijer had developed 17 "super" grasses for agricultural and domestic use. While grass is grass to most homeowners, these hybrid strains were something different. They would grow to just 2 to 6 inches per summer—1/6 of the pace of conventional varieties—and require neither water nor fertilizer.

Weijer’s research began in 1973, when he and U of A colleagues began the Parks Canada 12-year-long Native Grass Project, designed to find ways of revegetating the industrially scarred land of high-altitude strip mining operations. Hardy grasses from the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies were collected for the experimental test site in Edmonton.

It was only later that Weijer saw an application beyond land reclamation projects.

"I have always known what we had," Weijer said, "although I have to admit in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what the utilization was. I didn’t think of lawns at all. I had a fixed mind. That’s common in science, because you have a goal. It didn't occur to me that these grasses were a value to the householder and the garden lover. Then suddenly, I thought, ‘Oh God.’ But we have known about these grasses for, I would say, 10 or 15 years."

The marketing of the grass developed into something of a patent war, given that Canadian laws at the time would protect only the end products of "a manner of manufacture," thus leaving grass seed open to theft from bio-engineering firms.

Nevertheless, in 1987, Weijer concluded a $7.7 million world rights deal with the Edmonton company Texbeau Industries—which would change its name to Supergrass Inc.—split between Weijer, his technician Barry Hill and the U of A. Marketing was to begin in 1991.

The "super grass" never really left the ground, commercially. The 1987 Edmonton tornado blew away many of Weijer's seeds, heavy rains in 1989 and 1990 destroyed most of what remained, and Canadian patent problems continued, forcing Weijer to seek patents in the U.S. and Europe. Ultimately, though, there was criticism that the grass did not perform as advertised, and the company was unable to find a distributor. In August 1991, Supergrass Inc.—now renamed Canadian Star Industries Inc.—took it off the market.

Weijer died in January of 2003, at the age of 78.

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