Half-century of experience helps Nauman Sod Farms stand out

Sod harvested as big rolls with a 42-inch Magnum sod harvester represent about 90 percent of Nauman sod sales.

Tom and Pat Nauman own Nauman Sod Farms in Davenport, Iowa. Nauman grows about 600 acres of mostly bluegrass sod on farms located in Davenport and Iowa City. Marking 50 years in the sod business this year, Nauman exhibits optimism for the future of the sod industry despite a current drop in demand. Nauman said that longevity in sod growing is a key element in weathering the current downturn in demand.

Forty-two-inch slabs are harvested with a WMI sod harvester.
Photos courtesy of Nauman Sod Farms.
A Kubota 310 center-turning tractor is fitted with a custom-made sod installer.
A semi-load of big roll sod prepares to leave for delivery.

“Others feel the downturn sooner than sod grower because we’re the last at the site,” Numan said. “We usually sell all the sod we’re growing, and we haven’t cut back on what we’re growing. Last year was still pretty good for us, but we expect the market to be down this year,” he said.

“Old-timers that have been around for a while can withstand the difficulties, but it’s almost impossible for people new to growing sod to try to buy a farm and install irrigation with the price of sod where it is now,” he said.

In addition to growing a good sod, Nauman cited employee retention, mechanization and customer relations as key elements in his success.

Looking back

Nauman has a lot of history in the sod business. He started cutting pasture sod in 1959 at the age of 19. He continued to work part time in the sod industry and bought a sod farm while in college. He earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, and taught biology for four years at Loras College before entering the sod business full time. For the first 20 years, he grew and installed Kentucky bluegrass in the Dubuque area. “We supplied sod mostly for new houses,” he said.

Nauman moved the sod business to Davenport in 1979 for closer proximity to the larger Quad Cities market. Looking toward establishing a strong customer base among landscapers with the move to the larger market area, Nauman stopped installing sod. “We deal with landscapers,” he said. “We don’t want to be in competition with our customers.”

With the golf course building boom of the 1980s, Nauman produced sod for a high number of golf courses in the area. TPC at Deere Run, Silvis, Ill., in the Quad Cities area, is one of many courses that boasts Nauman’s sod. The course hosts the annual John Deere Classic. “The PGA brought us the seed from Pennington to grow the grass,” Nauman said. “Not many customers give us two years’ notice,” Nauman said. “They wanted a special blend of Kentucky bluegrass-fescue, and South Shore bentgrass. We delivered about 150 semi-loads of sod for the course.”

Despite ample rainfall, irrigation plays a significant role in Iowa sod production.

About 50 percent of Nauman’s sod has traditionally gone to the home market, with the remainder to commercial and corporate grounds, golf courses and athletic fields. Nauman’s sod is on stadium fields at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and Northwestern University. John Deere is a regular customer for sod used at its corporate grounds in Moline, Ill.

Growing grass

Nauman Sod Farms includes 200 acres of sod at the Davenport location, and 400 acres at the second farm location in Iowa City. Soil at the two farms is quite different. The Davenport farm has black loam, and the Iowa City farm, located near the Iowa River, has a more sandy soil. Most of the sod for athletic fields and golf courses is grown at the Iowa City location where drainage is an advantage.

Nauman has used seed from a number of seed companies over the years. Most recently he has purchased Scott and National seed in both Kentucky bluegrass and bentgrass. Bentgrass represents only about 5 percent of the sod produced by Nauman. “There are so many different varieties of bentgrass, and a lot of golf courses maintain their own source for their repairs,” Nauman said.

Customer interest in the dark green color of turf has steadily increased, Nauman said. “I remember hearing a sod grower at a seminar many years ago say that growing dark green grass isn’t the healthiest way to grow grass because it can mean it’s been overfertilized, but that’s the way the interest has gone.”

About 90 percent of Nauman’s sod is sold in big rolls with about 10 percent sold as slabs in 20-by-40-inch sizes. “We use a Magnum 42-inch sod harvester for the big rolls. We use both WMI Quick Hitch machines and Princeton Towboys to harvest slabs,” Nauman said. “We started with the big rolls because they require less labor in the field, and we try to get people to use them because it cuts their installation labor,” Nauman said. “We have six WMI big roll sod installers that we let customers use free of charge. They usually need them just a day to install their sod, but if they need them longer, they can keep them.”

Nauman begins cutting sod in April and continues until about December 1, sometimes extending further into December, depending on weather conditions. Irrigation water is pumped from on-site wells. Wade side roll and Rinker pivot irrigation products are used in the sod production.

Nauman maintains six WMI big roll sod installation machines that are available to customers at no cost.

Nauman’s business is primarily obtained through repeat customers and referrals. “We try to treat our landscaper customers well,” Nauman said. “We get their sod to them on time, when they need it, and we try to give them a good product.” Nauman owns two semis and contracts with haulers as needed for deliveries. Princeton PiggyBack forklifts are carried on the semis.

The future market for homes is of significant concern to the future of the sod industry. “We don’t know how that’s going to go,” Nauman said. He also sees water supply as a potential concern. The availability of water is a major concern worldwide, and studies continue on how to produce top-quality turfgrass while using less water. Most Iowa sod growers depend on wells for irrigation, and Nauman said that although the supply isn’t currently a concern, the water is controlled by the state and could be in shorter supply in the future.

He expressed concern about increases in the costs to produce sod. “Fertilizer prices especially have been increasing out of control,” he said. While operational costs have steadily increased, sod prices have not increased to support the higher cost to produce sod. “That makes it difficult for anyone entering the sod industry,” he said.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.