Sod business becomes increasingly competitive in Tennessee

John Spahr discusses cost containment practices in the sod business.

For John Spahr, owner of Grassroots Sod Farm, the sod business has been a sea of change over the years with a number of challenges along the way. The family business started in 1985 just outside Nashville, Tenn., and currently grows about 100 acres of a fescue-bluegrass blend sod. Spahr, an Illinois native, moved to Tennessee with a background in row crop farming. He also operated a nursery and grew about 20 acres of Kentucky bluegrass sod in central Illinois.

While a number of challenges have presented themselves in growing and marketing sod in the Nashville area, the most significant one has been adapting to an increasingly competitive market in a downturned economy. Spahr has managed these challenges by increasing cost control measures and customer contact.

Growing sod

Sod was a relatively new crop to the Nashville area in the 1980s, with few contractors using it on new construction. “As far as I know, there was only one other sod farm in the area at that time. We had to convince people to use sod back then. They all used seed, but now it’s natural to sod new lawns,” Spahr said.

“We’ve experimented with different seed,” Spahr added. “The Winning Colors Plus has been the best for our area. It’s a four-way blend that is 90 percent fescue with 10 percent Kentucky bluegrass.” He noted that the 10 percent bluegrass helps assure quick fill-in since bluegrass has spreading ability while fescue does not.

Spahr purchases the LebanonTurf seed through Sigma Organics in Nashville, which is also his supplier for organic fertilizers. He grows the fescue-Kentucky bluegrass blend with Bucyrus netting that helps hold the sod together when it is cut. He uses a 10-foot Land Pride seeder and a 16-foot Land Pride finishing mower.

“We grow only the fescue-Kentucky bluegrass blend, and I buy bermudagrass and zoysiagrass when I need to install those grasses,” Spahr said. “We hope to get some more acreage at some point and grow some other grasses.” Sod is harvested in 16-by-24-inch slabs with both Kesmac and WMI sod cutters.

While ample rainfall is received most of the year, weather conditions are unpredictable, so all the sod acreage is irrigated with a Bauer hard-hose wheel irrigation system. An on-farm creek provides a water source for irrigation, and a pump powered by a Caterpillar diesel motor is used to pump water from the creek.

Weather-related challenges

Grassroots is located along the Cumberland River where the sandy, silty loam requires a lot of attention to produce a good crop. “We have to keep it well-fertilized and irrigated,” Spahr said. Humidity levels are high in the area, which can be challenging to growing sod. “The general rule is that if your daytime temperature and humidity combined total is more than 150, fungus can develop. We have some growing practices to try to avoid fungus, and we treat any visible fungus development promptly with fungicide,” Spahr said.

Sod is loaded onto a Grassroots Sod Farm truck for delivery.

Spahr uses a granular organic fertilizer at planting. “We try to avoid using granular fertilizer in the summer heat and humidity since we can have a problem with fungus in those conditions,” Spahr said. Liquid fertilizer is used in the hot and humid summer months, with a return to granular fertilizer with cooler temperatures of fall. Spahr purchases liquid fertilizers from Robertson County Farmers Co-op, and preemergents and herbicides from Agriliance, which are both located in Springfield, Tenn.

While annual weather-related challenges occur and are managed with proper planning, last year brought a major weather-related challenge to Grassroots Sod Farm. River country flooding is common, but the May 2010 flooding in Tennessee was major and created extensive damage. “My entire farm was under water that was 5 feet deep,” Spahr said. “We lost some sod and machinery, along with office equipment and had other property damage.”

Secretaries Sarah Gagliono, John Spahr’s daughter, and Kalah Gonzales play important roles in Grassroots Sod Farm’s approach to customer service.

The flood occurred at a time when the Gulf Oil Spill grabbed predominant media attention. The weather pattern that dumped nonstop rain on the upper South brought extensive damage not only to high-profile Nashville sites, such as the renowned country music site of Opryland, but also to surrounding farmland and businesses. While it received only minimal media coverage, the flood brought devastation to 30 Tennessee counties, with heavy damage in Nashville where 10 of the state’s 21 flood-related deaths occurred. Damage was estimated at well over a billion dollars from the raging Cumberland River following 19 inches of rainfall in a two-day time frame.

Economic challenges

Traditionally, Grassroots Sod Farm sod sales have been within about a 30-mile radius of Nashville, and the company installed about 90 percent of its sod at new construction sites, both residential and commercial. Grassroots also delivers sod to sites for other installation projects, and sells sod that is picked up at the farm site. As in much of the U.S., the Nashville area experienced a major downturn in new construction with the economic slowdown in recent years.

“Between 2008 and 2010, we were down in sod sales about 80 percent,” Spahr said. “We’ve had to be a lot more economical and try to adjust to

less income. I was always in regular contact with customers, but I’ve tried to have even closer contact with our customers.”

Competition in the sod market has increased over the years as sod has gained popularity with a number of farms now in business in the area. “It’s hard to stay competitive with big companies,” Spahr said. “When they reduce prices, I have to cut my prices to stay competitive with them on jobs. I’ve had to look at different options – I watch every penny, maintain older equipment and do my own maintenance and mechanical work on the equipment. “

John Spahr continues family involvement on the sod farm with his five grandchildren.

Spahr noted that operating costs have also increased with rising prices on seed and other turf products, such as fertilizers and fungicides. “Everything has increased, but fuel has especially increased. The profit margin on sod is just much lower now than it was in the past,” he said.

“We’ve had to cut back to currently having only six people employed,” Spahr said. While the six employees are not always working due to fewer sod orders, Spahr has retained the permanent, part-time employees. “I treat them right,” he said. “When we’re working, I’m just one of the guys doing the work.”

He said, “Things are looking better for this year. People are starting to let go of their money a little more, and I think this year we’ll be seeing a return of more sod business. Some new building has been started, and there’s more renovation. We are seeing more people doing some of their own yard renovations.”

Spahr noted that he is continually using all the resources available to sod growers from seed companies, university research and other information sources. “I look at everything that’s out there,” he said.

Family focus

Grassroots Sod Farm has been a family business from its beginning, and a close-knit family continues to participate in the operation. “My brother-in-law came down here from Illinois first, and I moved down here and worked for him,” Spahr said. “When he moved to another profession, his father, my father-in-law, took over. He retired, and I bought the business.”

Spahr’s wife Karla and their daughter Sarah Gagliano work for Grassroots Sod Farm, and his grandchildren are starting to help out.

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