Sod grower adapts to reduced demand with a successful advertising plan

Fescue sod is harvested following a recent light snow.

Western Kentucky coalfields aren’t as well-known as those of eastern Kentucky, but abandoned strip mine pits in the area are serving a new purpose. Brumfield Sod Farm in Madisonville, Ky., is utilizing those abandoned mine pits, some of which are essentially large lakes, as irrigation holding sites. The abandoned mine pits, some of which are 80 to 90 feet deep, hold runoff water, providing a good supply of irrigation water. David Brumfield and his son, Shawn, have grown and installed sod for about 15 years in this region.

Farmers are encouraged to diversify their crops, and Brumfield added sod to his traditional farm production of corn, soybeans, tobacco and produce. “Sod was something I thought about for about 15 years before I started growing it,” Brumfield said. Challenges include marketing, drought, labor issues and the current reduced demand for sod. While he manages marketing and drought challenges well, he’s concerned about the continuing rise in labor costs and reduced demand.


Shawn and David Brumfield discuss the sod cutting schedule at Brumfield Sod Farm.

While diversification often represents a hedge against losses, nontraditional crops carry some risk, and Brumfield cited marketing as a major issue in a successful sod operation. “People think you can just grow the sod, but there’s a lot more involved,” he said. “You’ve got to have somewhere to sell your sod. If you have a crop of corn or soybeans, you can always take it to a market and sell it, but with sod, you have to find somebody who needs it.”

That’s been a key element in Brumfield’s success. Marketing is done through local advertising, trade shows and the company website, Personal contact is important, particularly in commercial jobs. Brumfield Sod serves a 150-mile radius that includes western Kentucky, southern Illinois and Indiana and northern Tennessee.

The economic slowdown has impacted sales. “We’re down about one-third to one-half from earlier sales,” Brumfield said. They’ve produced about 100 acres of sod annually, but recently reduced acreage in response to the lower demand.

Sales are about evenly divided between standard rolls and big rolls, and the company installs about one-third of the sod produced. “Most people who install their own sod want the smaller rolls. We use big rolls in bigger areas where we can get our equipment in,” Brumfield said. Standard rolls are harvested with a Brouwer 1560 sod harvester, and big rolls are harvested with a Magnum harvester. A WMI big-roll sod installer is used to install the sod. About 25 percent is sold retail.

Sodding is complete on a Fort Campbell, Ky., child development center yard.

Brumfield Sod workers prepare a yard for sodding at a Fort Campbell, Ky., child development center.

Growing sod

Sod is primarily a blend of Falcon, Titan and Rembrandt fescue and Kentucky bluegrass, with smaller amounts of zoysiagrass and bermudagrass. Brumfield purchases the seed from Caudill Seed in Louisville, Ky., and uses a Brillion planter to plant it. The sod is fertilized regularly and mowed with Woods mowers.

“We’ve had very little problem with diseases or pests,” Brumfield said. Sod production is rotated with corn and soybean production to increase organic matter in the soil.

Compensating for drought conditions is a major issue and some fields need extra time before cutting. “We’ve had drought conditions in two of the past four years,” Brumfield said. “We have the water in our large lakes, but we’re not able to irrigate all of our fields.” Diesel pumps bring water in from the strip mine pits, and traveling Big Guns are used to water the sod.

While none of the sod fields have been completely lost to drought, field conditions have been poor on the fields that cannot be irrigated. “On some fields, it’s taken an extra year to bring the sod along to be ready to cut,” Brumfield said.

Brumfield cited concern about losing customers. “If we don’t have enough sod from other fields to fill orders, those customers will go to other suppliers, he said. “If customers have to go somewhere else, you don’t get them back. The next year they’re likely to call the suppliers they used.”

While ideal conditions are preferred for cutting the sod, Brumfield noted that sod was recently cut following a light snow. “In hard times, you do what you have to do, so we cut with snow when we have to,” he said.

Labor concerns

Labor is a major production cost and an issue that is difficult to manage. The rural location means the labor supply pool is limited. “We can’t get local labor to do the hard work in agriculture,” he said. “The employment office will send me workers who have no experience. We’ll spend a day working with somebody and who may work only a day, so if we do that with 50 workers, that’s 50 days we’ve lost working with somebody.”

He contracts for Mexican workers through the H2A program for 10 months of the year. “We can get the workers through the H2A program, and they’re always good workers,” he said. Workers are contracted as general farm workers and aren’t dedicated to sod work. “We grow produce, and they work in that. We have to have things to keep them busy throughout those 10 months they’re here,” he said.

A fescue blend sod field is mowed with a Woods mower at Brumfield Sod Farm.

Looking ahead

As for the reduced demand, he says, “It’s something I think about continually. If things don’t improve, we’re going to have to transition to other crops.”

Many Kentucky farmers have made crop changes from tobacco production to other crops. Large-scale produce growing has been a primary choice, and Brumfield has increased the amount of produce grown, then selling it at the Brumfield Farm Market. “There’s a trend toward buying local produce,” he said. “We sell our produce and some sod through our farm market, and in the winter we sell other local Kentucky products such as jams and jellies, honey, cheese and sorghum.” His wife, Linda, manages the farm market located on a primary highway in Madisonville.

Production costs, including fuel, continue to rise. “Fuel is a concern as a production cost,” Brumfield said. “But, the biggest cost in production is labor.” Brumfield, in line with many sod producers across the nation, will continue cutting back sod acreage while the demand for the product is low in order to remain profitable.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for <45 Light Oblique>Turf for almost 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.