A corn and soybean grower takes on a new crop

M&M Turf in Lexington, Ill., is located on central Illinois flatland prairie. Owners Mike and Marilyn Wagner both grew up in the area. Most of the fields are planted in corn and soybeans in early spring, and by fall, both crops provide a contrasting backdrop for the wide expanses of turf on their farm. Few rivers cut across this part of the prairie, but ample rain and snow usually fall, and dry land farming is the norm. Wagner planted his first Kentucky bluegrass turf crop in 1999. Equipment upgrades, changing market responses and a pleasant work environment are all significant to the success of M&M Turf operations.

Turf fields are bordered by corn and soybean fields.

With land rapidly disappearing to development, renting land for crops can be difficult. “I had lost some of my rented land,” Wagner said. “A friend in landscaping kept telling me there was a need for more turf, so we decided to try it.” Wagner’s farm is about 10 miles from Bloomington-Normal, where a high-tech insurance industry supports a strong economy. Development over the past 10 years has gobbled up farmland expanding the boundaries of the cities in all directions.

“We seeded 15 acres the first spring and 50 acres that fall,” Wagner said. He started with the Moonlight blend of Kentucky bluegrass, and currently grows about 240 acres of Moonlight and Moonbeam blends. The company sells about 600,000 yards of turf annually within a 100-mile area of central Illinois.

Marilyn Wagner discusses turf orders with Cliff Piper while Jimmy Hafley prepares to cut turf.

Equipment upgrades and market changes

The Wagners purchased to a Trebro AutoStack last year. “It’s really a great addition,” Wagner said. Initially, Wagner used a turf cutting machine with a crew stacking cut turf, then moved to a Trebro pull-behind model before going to the Trebro AutoStack. Wagner said, “Getting good help is always hard, and the AutoStack really helps.” M&M also provides big rolls of sod when requested by customers.

Wagner switched from reel-type mowers to Progress 15.5 and 22-foot, high-speed, rotary mowers. “There’s less maintenance with the rotary mowers,” he said.

Although Wagner has two wells on the property located on different aquifers, he only uses irrigation when needed to help newly seeded fields if the weather is unusually dry, or to obtain appropriate moisture levels for cutting turf. Two pumps, 350 GPM and 150 GPM, pump water into a 6-inch PVC pipe that carries the water to the main fields. “I draw from both wells at the same time, adjusting the pressures to get the appropriate amount of flow,” Wagner said. Risers with water connections are located every 240 feet, and an AG-Rain Water-Reel is connected to the irrigation line at a riser connection. The AG-Rain Water-Reel has a .25-mile hose that connects to a water gun, which is pulled across the field while connected to the hose, and travels back to the original location covering a swath of about 240 feet. It is then moved to a new location.

M&M Turf sells turf primarily to landscapers, with a small amount of turf sold to garden centers in the spring and fall. Wagner noted that the economic downturn is affecting the turf business. Although the area continues to support a strong economy, home construction has slowed. He said, “We’re probably down about 30 percent from 2006.

Pallets of turf rolls are loaded onto a semi by forklifts.

“Here in the Midwest, we get some warning when things are slowing down. Things on the East and West coasts slow down first before we see the changes,” Wagner said. “We can plant fewer acres and make business adjustments.”

Seeding and growing

Central Illinois receives ample rainfall, and heavy snow cover usually provides extensive winter moisture. Spring and early summer 2008 were extremely wet, creating difficulties for row crops. However, “The turf looks great this year with all the moisture,” Wagner said.

Pallets of turf rolls await loadingfor delivery.

Although turf is a new crop added to Wagner’s corn and soybean farming, the operating style remains the same. Wagner cited working with his suppliers as a major element. “We get our seed from Summit Seed in Manteno,” he said. “They do a good job for us. They get their seed from Oregon and Washington, and they blend it and bag it up for us.”

Most of the seeding is done in the fall with occasional spring seeding. Wagner uses Brilliant seeders. “We use small, John Deere tractors with flotation tires,” he said. “It’s important to keep the weight off the turf to avoid damage.”

This part of Illinois is home to deep, black loam, the type of soil that farmers and turf managers in other regions envy. Wagner does regular soil sampling and works with Agronomist Brian Freed of Ag Focus in Lexington on soil needs.

“Turf farming is more labor-intensive. We work a lot more days than with corn and soybeans,” Wagner said.

He noted that jobs change with farm needs. “We all get good jobs to do and some not so good. We have to get it all done.” He cited the working environment as key to the success of the business. “Everybody here is friendly and has a good time. Sometimes we know we really have to work to get things done.” Off-season work means lots of maintenance. “We fix everything we broke and didn’t have time to repair earlier,” Wagner said.

M&M Turf employs three full-time and three seasonal, part-time employees. Like many family farming operations, Wagner’s operation is a team project. Marilyn’s work is complex and requires handling several projects at the same time. She not only processes billing and payroll, but also coordinates turf orders and dispatch.

Trebo AutoStack has been a major asset to M&M Turf operations.
An AG-Rain Water-Reel is used for limited irrigation.

“Getting the turf delivered can be quite challenging,” Wagner noted. He cited coordinating with landscapers’ needs as a major issue. “The landscapers have to watch the weather and hope they can lay the turf,” he said. “We’ve had no rain forecast for an entire day, and we’ve cut large amounts of turf for a customer. Sometimes the rain may come in by 11 a.m., and they’re out laying their turf in the mud.”

M&M Turf is a member of Turf Producers International (TIP), which Wagner said is significant to turf producers. “They don’t tell us how to grow turf, but we pool our resources to promote turf and the green industry, which is extremely important.”

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.