Grass can be a real cash crop. Grass is also known as sod, and sodding a barren patch of land is the quickest, easiest way to achieve a lush, green lawn. So growing sod can be a lucrative agriculture commodity in areas with a steady local market, especially during a housing boom.
Sod farming, also called turf farming, can be tough to get into, especially if you start from scratch, but it might provide an unexpected alternative crop in the right location.
Like any farming venture, a turf farm needs land with good soil and sufficient water. However, the amount of land needed to succeed could leave some small-scale farmers out of the sod business. New turf farmers must also invest in specialized equipment, especially for large-scale harvesting, which could further hamper the endeavor. Lastly, a turf farm takes time to establish itself, so you must also be prepared to wait before realizing a profit.
James Gibson and his wife, Michele, own and operate DG Turf Farm in Idaho, which is a third-generation sod farm started by Gibson’s grandfather in 1972. After several moves and changing economics, the Gibsons now primarily offer turfgrass and caution new producers on starting too small.
“With the high cost of startup and the requirement to acquire and maintain such specialized equipment, it’s hard to imagine farming less than 100 acres of turfgrass for a solid profit,” James Gibson says.
Chris Jones started his turf farm in 1999 and is co-owner and operator of Top Turf Sod Farm, a family operation with locations in Alabama and Tennessee. Jones stresses the cost of equipment is probably one of the biggest considerations.
“If you’re growing only Bermuda or mostly Bermuda, the minimum amount of land I’d recommend is probably around 75 acres,” he says. “You have to be able to harvest two-thirds of it each year for it to be financially worth the costs. One producer, with just a small crew to help with labor, could comfortably farm maybe 125 acres, if you don’t have multiple fields that are really spread out.”
Which Grasses to Grow
Consumer preferences partially determine which grasses you should grow, but another factor is your location. Certain turfgrass species do better in different regions of the country because of acclimation to the local climate and other environmental factors. Planting turf species that are not well adapted to your region requires more care and maintenance throughout propagation, and the turf is more susceptible to pest invasion.
“We’re primarily zone 6 and grow cool season grasses,” says Michele Gibson. “The traditional choice for the Treasure Valley has always been a Kentucky Bluegrass or a blue/rye mix. Through different plant breeding programs, tall fescues are becoming more attractive to homeowners and developers looking for a beautiful greenspace that’s low maintenance and more water wise.”
In the past, the Gibsons have offered other tall fescues, but now they’re getting an excellent response to their RTF—rhizomatous tall fescue. “The texture, color and performance are really ideal for our conditions in and around Boise,” Gibson says. “With the growing number of people and landscape scenarios, we’re also looking again at offering Creeping Red Fescue. The customers definitely drive the market, but as a professional producer, we feel it’s our responsibility to educate them and give them solid selections.”
Tifway419 Bermuda is the prime seller for Jones. It’s relatively drought-resistant and a good option for high-traffic areas. “Rebel Exceda Fescue—hybridized with Kentucky Bluegrass—is another good option to have,” he says. “This is a shade-tolerant, cool-season grass that stays green year-round, ideal for consumers who don’t have a sunny yard. However, it does present challenges growing here, because of the intense heat we usually have in the summers.”
Jones also offers Emerald Zoysia, a higher-end grass than Bermuda. “Initially, we started with just Bermuda and fescue, but we got a lot of calls from folks asking for zoysia, so we decided to grow about 3 acres of it in a small, isolated field we had. Emerald seems to be the nicest of them all. I like to call it the Cadillac of turfgrasses, but it is kind of a pain to grow.”
Sowing the Sod
Cool-season grasses such as fescue, bluegrass, ryegrass and bent grass are best planted during the fall, whereas it’s better to plant warm-season grasses such as Bermuda, zoysia, St. Augustine and centipede grasses in late spring or early summer. Turfgrass is propagated either through seed or plugs. When using seed, insist on certified seed, free of weed and crop seed, to ensure high genetic purity. Seeds are usually planted with a cultipacker, drilled or broadcast and worked into the surface of the field.
“We seed only the fescue,” Jones says. “The Bermuda and zoysia are plugged, grown from registered turfgrass that we purchased from other farms when we first got started. The Bermuda and zoysia usually grow back after it’s harvested, but if we have winter damage, we plug it to fill it in.”
The Labor of Propagation
Labor requirements on a turf farm are considered intensive, and the more acres you farm, the more hours of labor you need. You’ll need sufficient manpower to plant, water, fertilize and mow your turf and to harvest sod.
Turfgrass is a pretty labor-intensive crop with a period as long as 18 months of care from seed to harvest, including daily mowing and maintenance, according to James Gibson. “In our area, irrigation is the most labor-intensive part,” he says, “but imagine mowing, watering and maintaining a 400- to 500-acre yard. Even using larger equipment than the average homeowner, it’s a lot of work. Right now, we also run all manual harvesters, so every single roll is hand stacked on a pallet, which adds to our labor requirements.”
Jones agrees that it’s fairly labor intensive. “We live in a subtropical zone, so the summers can get rough here for outdoor manual laborers,” he says, noting the 100-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. “Harvesting and installing sod are the most labor-intensive parts for us. There are different types of harvesters, but we still primarily use the type that requires human hands on the back, stacking slabs. We also sell rolls but not as much. The mowing, planting and watering aspects don’t require as much physical labor, but they still have to be done regularly.”
Water Is Key
Irrigation is the most important cultural practice on a turf farm, especially in dry climates. While areas with plentiful rainfall might require little, if any, supplemental irrigation, turfgrass wouldn’t survive in most areas of the country without appropriate watering to develop a solid root system that can withstand harvesting and installation.
“Parts of the country don’t require manual irrigation,” James Gibson says, “but with our low rainfall and high desert conditions, it’s our largest labor component. We use handlines, wheel lines, pivots and linears, and all of them need to be run and moved on a daily basis.”
“In our areas of north Alabama and southern Tennessee, if you don’t have irrigation, you’d be in trouble,” Jones says. “The grass needs sufficient water to grow, of course, but it also needs to have the right moisture content to harvest well and be handled easily. The fescue, in particular, would really suffer without irrigation, because it’s grown in full sunlight and our hot summers would just devastate it.”
Once turfgrass develops the strength to remain intact with minimal soil adherence, it’s harvestable. Turf growers with less than 50 acres of sod typically use small, hand-operated, walk-behind harvesting units, while larger growers often use tractor-mounted or self-propelled harvesters. The time required to produce marketable rolls or square-cut slabs of sod depends on the turfgrass species, soil type and growing conditions. Freshly harvested sod should be laid quickly to ensure viability.
“Being a perishable item, in the summer months, sod really should be harvested and installed within a 24-hour timeframe,” Gibson says. “We get up over 100 degrees, with no relative humidity, and that grass is living. It really needs to be installed and watered-in right away. This really affects how far we’re willing or able to deliver. We can make a few adjustments in the spring or fall, but we keep our delivery radius inside 75 miles in the summer heat.”
Jones gives his customers the option of delivery or picking up turfgrass themselves. “We harvest by order daily, because turfgrass doesn’t last a long time on the pallet, especially in the heat of the summer,” he says. “Many consumers need more than a single pallet and don’t have a way to haul it, so I’d definitely recommend having a way to ship it (locally).”
From Turf Farm to Sod Market
Marketing sod is different than marketing traditional agronomic crops, because there isn’t a guaranteed market for the product. The market for sod production in you area could be untapped or oversaturated, so it’s vital to do research before making what can be a large investment. Landscapers and building contractors typically make up the largest portion of buyers, with homeowners representing the next largest consumer group. Growers with small acreage often focus on homeowners and lawn-care professionals, while larger producers tend to cater to landscape contractors and garden centers as well as golf course and athletic field superintendents.
“The most crucial thing to consider in sod production would be the market,” Jones says. “You must have a solid, local market for turfgrass. If it’s not there, I wouldn’t recommend it. You really don’t want to have to haul it too far. It’s a living, breathing plant, so it needs to get where it’s going and get put in the ground.”
The Gibsons say most of their sales go to landscape professionals. “We do, however, limit the number of landscape professionals we work with, so we can focus on having a solid product they know they can count on,” Gibson says. “We also work with the retail customer direct.”
Adds Michele Gibson, “I really enjoy taking calls from customers and talking to them about the benefits of turfgrass and what will work best for their specific site. We have a lot of growth going on right now, people moving from out of state, and they aren’t familiar with our climate.”
Gibson says the business’ best form of advertising is word of mouth: “We love referrals. Being online, you can track and get a better feel for who you’re reaching, and when. We stick with trying to stay relevant online and within the search engines, so many of our customers are repeat buyers. I get calls from people who purchased 15 years ago, from our previous location, trying to track us down. That’s the best advertising, right there.”
Sidebar: Pests and Weeds
As with any crop, turfgrass problems can come from weeds, insects and various diseases. Research has shown that properly maintained turf is better at warding off certain weeds and diseases and can even tolerate higher numbers of insects. Limited use of pesticides and proper management practices prevents or reduces pests and promotes healthy, dense turf.
Most pests are easier to manage when they’re immature and fewer in number, so sod producers must vigilantly monitor pest activity to catch infestations as early as possible. Some pests to watch for include white grubs, mole crickets, ants, army worms, cutworms, sod webworms, chinch bugs and Bermuda grass mites. Besides insects, small animals can also live in or on turf and cause damage. If you notice dead areas in your turf or areas that have stunted or distorted growth or browning or yellowing leaves, check for the presence of pests.
“Army worms will eat anything green,” says Chris Jones of Top Turf Sod Farm. “They’re a common, potential pest for any farmer in the region, not just sod farmers. There are several poisons labeled to treat them. Armadillos are another pest, which previously didn’t live in this area but have shown up in recent years. Elimination is the only answer, or they will dig holes in your sod looking for worms. Fire ants are probably the most dangerous and aggravating pest that can be prevented to some extent by treating the borders of your farm.”
Turf weeds might be grasses, grasslike plants or broadleaf plants. These include crabgrass, goosegrass, annual bluegrass, yellow or green foxtail, sandbur, sedges, yellow or purple nutsedge, Kyllinga, hairy bittercress, buttercups, chickweed, henbit, burweed, knotweed, dandelion, white clover and yellow woodsorrel. Weeds can be introduced into a turf field in many ways. Pre-emergence herbicides might stop some weeds, but sound turf production management practices are often the best defense against many different weed types.
“Crabgrass is the biggest common weed problem,” Jones says. “It’s best treated with prevention, so we use a pre-emergent several times in early spring and summer, about six weeks apart. Dandelions and clover are two other potential weed problems, which can be treated with broad-leaf herbicides. However, the best weed prevention, especially in Bermuda and zoysia, is to mow the grass every other day. The clippings are small and distributed by the wind, which encourages growth and spreading. The thicker and fuller your grass is, the more difficult it is for weeds to take root.”
“Pests and weeds can vary drastically, depending on your turf type and location,” says James Gibson of DG Turf Farm in Idaho. “With our cultural practice of crop rotation, we use as little herbicides as possible, but we really don’t have a huge pest or weed problem. I’ve been doing this for so many years; I know how important it is to be out in your fields every day, watching for issues and, if they arise, get them taken care of immediately. Prevention is much easier than treatment. When you start with a superior seed, bring in high-quality amendments, properly time your applications and seedings, and harvest at the optimal growth, it makes treatment less relevant.”
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.