Amherst College grounds pro Bob Shea, 35 years on the job, still striving for better

Even though the turf is dormant and the trees are bare, there’s always work to do for the small Amherst College grounds crew.
Photos courtesy of Amherst College.

Some of the learning that takes place inside the classrooms at Amherst College may be theoretical, but outside of the classroom, Bob Shea’s focus is purely practical. As grounds supervisor, he makes sure that the grounds match the Amherst College’s reputation for academic excellence. And, like grounds managers everywhere, Shea is challenged today to do more with fewer employees. A carefully selected arsenal of equipment and some proven strategies help ensure efficiency as well as quality.

Shea has been at the school in Massachusetts for 35 years, working first on the athletic fields and eventually overseeing the entire grounds; he’s had a bit of time to get to know the campus. He’s also in charge of vehicle purchasing, snow removal and trash collection. His team includes an athletic field foreman and two athletic field staff; as well as an assistant superintendent and crew to handle the rest of the campus grounds. The grounds maintenance staff consists of 14 employees, which makes for busy days.

“There’s never a dull moment, I’ll put it that way,” jokes Shea.

The Amherst campus totals a little over 900 acres, much of it in forest and wildlife areas. The maintained campus is 150 acres. In all, there are about 90 acres to mow, plus another 20 acres of athletic grounds. All of the maintenance work is handled in-house except sweeping the roadways and the mulching of some large, steep banks, which is contracted out.

“I’ve gotten to know the campus pretty well,” jokes Grounds Supervisor Bob Shea, now in his 35th year tending the Amherst College grounds.

While the grounds must be meticulously maintained year-round, there’s no question that the biggest pressure comes in the lead up to commencement, when everything must be perfect.

The rush to get ready for commencement begins essentially when the snow melts, says Shea. “We’ve got to clean up all the grounds and the sand from the parking lots; we have to edge and mulch all the flower beds. Then we start fertilization and mowing begins. All this starts about the middle of March and we have to have everything ready by the middle of May.”

And as commencement – which takes place in the middle of campus on the school’s main quad – nears, the grounds crew must set up about 10,000 chairs and 800 tables for the festivities surrounding commencement and reunions. Then, two weeks later, they remove the tables and chairs. Student workers help in the set-up, but are gone by the time takedown occurs.

The beat goes on

Even after students are gone, summer is one of the busiest times of the year for the grounds staff. Summer brings reunions and camps to the campus and, inevitably, new construction. Presently, 10 to 12 projects are underway on campus.

“That’s in addition to four major projects that are going on: a new football field and fieldhouse are being built; an office building is being renovated; a dorm is being remodeled; and our science center is being renovated. So not only do we have to do our regular maintenance, we have to help out those contractors, and keep an eye on them,” says Shea.

The biggest event of the year at any college is commencement. The grounds staff at Amherst has about eight weeks from the time the snow melts to clean up from the winter and get the campus looking its absolute best.

He works with the school’s engineering department to get snow fences and other barriers erected to protect the campus landscaping as much as possible during construction projects. His staff is involved with the selection of grasses and plants around newly completed buildings, but doesn’t have to grow these areas in. “We take over once those areas have been mowed once or twice,” says Shea.

One of the most unique uses of equipment to improve efficiency at Amherst can be seen on the large, steep banks around campus. There, a robotic mower is used to save time and boost safety.

“It’s a Spider. It’s 40 inches wide, with four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering. It looks like a little crab,” says Shea. “It will mow a bank up to 50 degrees. It’s remote control and the operator can stand at the bottom of the bank and go back and forth.” The robotic mower will cut as low as 3.5 inches and the banks are mowed every two to three weeks.

There is more than 1 mile of banking on the campus, and the Spider can mow these slopes in about two and a half to three days. Before the purchase of the robotic mower, the job was all done by hand with trimmers or push mowers. While it cost nearly $40,000 at the time it was purchased, Shea says the robotic mower gets the job done quicker and limits the liability of someone getting hurt, which dramatically reduces the manpower needed to care for the banks.

“We now have two fewer people working in the summer because of it,” he notes.

A Toro 455-D 10.5-foot mower with two Toro Groundsmaster 72-inch and Scag walk-behind units keep the rest of the turfgrass areas on the campus nicely mowed.

This 4WD, remote control Spider mower comes in very handy (and is the safest way) to maintain steep banks around campus.

In the fall, when students return, the grounds crew is preparing for fertilizing and aerating the lawns. “It depends on the weather, though,” notes Shea. “Last summer was pretty dry, so we didn’t do much aeration or fertilization until the end of September when the weather changed and the grass started turning more green.”

The school purchased a PermaGreen ride-on fertilizer spreader last year, which Shea says has proven to be more efficient than sending an employee out to spread by hand. He had to overcome some skepticism in purchasing a relatively expensive piece of equipment that’s only used four or five times per year, “but it’s proven itself, it works great,” Shea explains. “It’s saved us a lot of time in the smaller areas.”

With about 70 buildings on campus, many of them tightly packed together, there are many tricky areas to get in and out of and the ride-on unit works great for those applications, he says. A tractor and spreader fertilizes larger, more open areas of campus.

Shea counts on his tractor-driven AERA-vator by First Products, Inc. to aerate the campus lawns. A complimentary seeder unit helps re-establish worn or damaged areas of turfgrass.

The college grounds team handles all of snow and ice management on the campus. Located in west central Massachusetts, the region gets an average of 36 inches of snow annually.

Aerifying is particularly important along edges of sidewalks, where compaction and worn spots are most likely to occur, he observes. Whenever sidewalks are installed, he works to ensure they are wide enough for vehicles to drive on, if necessary. “I’m pretty adamant about staying off the grounds with vehicles,” he notes, but sometimes contractors or delivery trucks end up on the turf and create worn spots.

The grounds crew has relied more in the past few years on RoundUp applications to minimize the need for trimming. “Trimming is a never-ending battle. With 90 acres to cover, if you start on one end of the campus by the time you finish on the other end it’s time to start all back over again,” says Shea. RoundUp has proven a more lasting solution and applications are precisely made with a backpack sprayer. “Especially around trees and signposts and bike racks, it’s much more efficient,” he explains.

Other than the athletic fields and a few select areas, very little irrigation is done on campus, Shea notes, adding, “We do have water cannons that we use on the main quad, just so [everything is in good shape] when students come back in September.”

Busy autumns

Leaf cleanup is another major part of fall maintenance on the Amherst campus. Crews use an AgriMetal leaf vacuum and two tractors equipped with AgriMetal blowers. “They’ll round up the leaves and make piles and then we’ll go around and pick them up. Then we also have two or three guys doing hand raking,” says Shea. The goal is always to get the leaves collected before snow starts to fall, which makes the job much more difficult, he adds.

Fall leaf clean-up is a busy time on campus. Crews blow leaves into large piles and collect them with a vacuum. It’s usually a race against time as the first snowfall can (and has) come as early as October.

Snowfall also means snow removal for the grounds crew. “We do 100 percent of the snow removal and salting,” says Shea of his staff. “We use Liquid Magic, which is environmentally friendly. That is all we use on the sidewalks, unless there’s an ice storm or a sudden freeze, and then we’ll use a little bit of salt. We use both the Liquid Magic combined with salt on the roadways.” His goal is to use little or no sand because it is so costly and time-consuming to clean it up in the spring, especially at a time when the grounds staff is preparing for commencement. “It used to take us three weeks just to clean up the sand; now we’re getting it done in three or four days,” he says.

A John Deere articulated front-end loader and a smaller Ford tractor handle snow removal on the roads. A pair of Bobcat Toolcats is used on the sidewalks. “We have one with a straight plow and one with a V-plow. And we also purchased a couple of snowblowers that we can use on those,” says Shea. When heavy snowfalls occur, the snowblowers have proven to work much better than the plows, he notes.

On the athletic field side, snow most constantly be removed from the school’s artificial field so it can be used by students. A Kubota RTV equipped with a plow, as well as a Kubota tractor with both plow and snowblower are used for that job. “It’s a time-consuming operation. To remove 6 or 8 inches of snow is probably a six-hour job,” he says of the field clearing.

But without the right mix of equipment, this job and others would take even longer, says Shea. He credits school administrators with strongly supporting the grounds department when it comes to purchasing the right tools for the job. “They’re very good to us. If we can justify a certain piece of equipment and communicate why we need it, they’ll usually buy it for us,” he says. “And I try to have a back-up plan for everything, so if something breaks, I have something to substitute for it.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories. You can contact him at