Turf Magazine - October, 2012

FEATURES

Turfgrass Growers Adapt to Changing Market

Property owners seeking grasses that require less maintenance and less water
By K. Schipper


These big rolls of turfgrass sod, if kept moist and promptly shipped and installed, will thrive and beautify any property.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF JAMES GRAFF, GRAFF'S TURF FARMS.
There's good news and bad news for cool-season turfgrass producers - and it's likely to provide both ups and downs for lawn care professionals.

The good news is that following the collapse of the construction market, demand for sod is looking up once again. But, it's going to be a different market than it was just a few years ago, with fewer suppliers and different products.

As turfgrass producers move to compete, it's also likely they'll be working harder than ever to get the advantages of their products in front of buyers, from homeowners to project designers and specifiers.

A lot of the economic recovery is still very region-specific. That's probably why Bob Weerts, owner of Blue Valley Sod, Winnebago, Minn., describes his market as "coming along, but fair," while James Graff, co-owner of Fort Morgan, Colo.-based Graff's Turf Farms, sees a real upswing.

"We're seeing a lot of new home starts and sodding of new homes again in Colorado," says Graff. "We service all sectors, but we're starting to see new homes come back and we're also seeing some golf business come back, and that's exciting."

Many of the contractors with whom Graff works also build multifamily projects, and he says there's activity in that market segment, as well.

However, not all is sunny. Weerts is seeing more homeowners seeding their lawns themselves, and Graff says his company's garden center activity is static at best.

On the commercial side, "Some of the commercial properties in our area are going to prairie grass," says Weerts, whose market includes southern Minnesota, Iowa and South Dakota. "I don't think they understand it takes three years to get the prairie grass to come around." Fortunately, many commercial projects are still installing sod, he adds.

Bigger homes on smaller lots

While Graff is seeing the upturn in residential construction in his primary market of the Denver metropolitan area (he sells throughout Colorado), he says it's not the same as when things were booming. After years of basing the average yard size on 3,000 square feet, he says that's decreasing for several reasons. Buyers are opting for larger homes on smaller lots to reduce maintenance and also to conserve water.

"I think a lot of people have less than half of that amount for grass in their yards now," Graff says. "In these new homes you may have 600 square feet or 400 square feet for the front yard, and 1,200 square feet in the backyard, and that's it." Beyond what he describes as "water thriftiness," property owners are also asking for grasses that require much less maintenance.

"It seems that people have acclimated to their water bills, but now they want us to give them back an hour of their time because they don't have to mow every single week," he says. "They're more excited about that than I ever heard anybody excited about saving $10 on their water bill."


Sod producers must stay abreast of research that pinpoints the best species and cultivars for each unique applicaton.

Weerts says he, too, is seeing more demand for fewer-mow products, and not just among homeowners.

"Certainly we have homeowners who don't want to mow grass, but we've got commercial people who are looking at that, too," Weerts says. "We're getting more and more of that all the time, and it's definitely a way to go."

By comparison, neither is seeing a great deal of clamor for the ultimate no-mow turf: synthetic. "In areas where they're putting in stadiums, it's a big deal," says Weerts. "I think they're also finding out it costs more money to do the synthetic than they think."

That isn't much consolation for Weerts, who offered to furnish the sod for the new University of Minnesota football stadium at no cost, and was turned down in favor of a synthetic product. "They wouldn't even listen to me," he laments. "They said that they play on it every day and they needed the synthetic grass."

Fortunately, it's not a trend he's seeing show up on high school fields - yet. In the meantime, Weerts has been investigating a new type of synthetic turf that utilizes biomass and can be over-planted with grass.

"In the sports turf world, synthetic is still the biggest threat," agrees Graff. "But there are also a lot of people out there, specifically parents of children, who are not fans of the surface."

Graff says he's even seeing what he refers to as "press-back" from people who are now lobbying for sod playing surfaces. And, Weerts says many people who didn't do their homework are now finding out about the heat that synthetic turf retains and the special maintenance issues.

Neither sees it as a threat in the home sod market - at least for now.


Sod growers see the turfgrass market rebounding, but a market that's much different than the one that existed a decade ago due to issues related to sustainability.

Upselling with knowledge

Whether the pressure comes from the well-financed synthetic turf manufacturers or other aspects of the industry, both Weerts and Graff agree that change is already in the air for the cool-season turfgrass producers.

For instance, Weerts says he's seen other producers get out of the business recently.

"A lot of people are getting out of the business because we're seeing less sod used," he says. "We just lost a big grower here in Minnesota this year. The company had been in business 65 years." And, he and Graff say they're both harvesting less sod than they used to.

"We've cut back on our production," says Weerts. "We're getting better production because we did some things, such as put better organic feed into it. We're trying to decrease the turnaround in the sod and it seems like it's working."


Sod producers face the same water-use issues as the people who install/maintain lawn and property owners, of course. But like all farmers, they're subject to whims of nature and the inflexible law of supply and demand.

"We've made significant changes in our business to adapt to the amount of work that's out there," echoes Graff. "As the volume starts to come back, we'll be better geared for it, because we're trying to run more efficiently."

Certainly some of that volume will be taken up with low-mow sod. Weerts says he's always put an emphasis on growing drought- and disease-resistant strains while keeping one eye toward future demands, and Graff says those demands are changing.

"We constantly need to be looking at what sells turfgrass and what kinds of turfgrass we should be offering to the end-user," says Graff. "We have to be sensitive to what's relevant out there, what's going to sell and what's going to be best for the end-user."

With so many buyers having grown to expect a water-saving turf, Graff says he can see the day coming when offering less-mow sod will be seen as a residential project upgrade. Before that, though, cool-season turfgrass producers will have to do a better job of getting their story out to the people who buy, install and use their product.

Different philosophies

Weerts says he's always marketed very aggressively, with a lot of that advertising aimed at the end-users. For contractors, the need for information is a little deeper. "We answer all their calls," Weerts says. "Our door is always open. We're always working with engineers and designers on what's good and what's bad."


Like the cost-squeezed landscape industry, sod growers continue to mechanize to reduce labor costs and increase productivity. They have no choice if they want to remain competitive.

His advice is for anyone working on a set of plans to call local sod producers and ask questions - and, they shouldn't be afraid to look at new options.

Graff says he's spending less on marketing, but trying to be more market and product specific. And, that means doing more with landscape architects and designers, as well as purchasing agents - anyone who is specifying grass for a job.

But, he says things don't stop there.

"It isn't just offering some of the newer variety grasses," Graff says. "We need to support them so the end-user knows what they've received in turf and they know the maintenance behind it."

That may come from something to be put in the homeowner's hands to let the customer know they've gotten a better product, and let both the builder and the landscaper shine.

It's that kind of approach, both men believe, that will ultimately allow the turfgrass industry to even do battle against synthetic turf.

Graff appreciates the information that industry organizations such as Turfgrass Producers International (TPI) put out. "We have work closely with them to get the right information into the right hands," he concludes. "An architect or contractor I know personally is going to listen to me where he might ignore a mailing from TPI's office."

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.