Dedication to quality and networking key elements at Heath Farms

Bob Heath discusses sod field progress.

Bob Heath, owner of Robert H. Heath Farms, Inc. in Coloma, Wis., launched a sod operation less than a decade ago. When the now 82-year-old Heath, a Wisconsin native, decided to explore growing sod in 2003, his first move was to look at options with experts in growing and marketing sod.

Heath Farms is located in Wisconsin’s Central Sand Hills, an area that was once a part of Glacial Lake Wisconsin. The sandy soils have traditionally limited agricultural growing in the area, with produce a leading crop. Heath grows produce on about 600 acres. “I had this idea that we could grow sod on our sand,” Heath said. “I wanted to try something new.” It wouldn’t be the first time he tried something new. He bought the Central Sand Hills farm and began farming about 40 years ago with no farm background whatsoever. His dedication to producing a quality product is a driving force. Much of his success in the sod industry is attributable to careful planning, dedication to quality and a focus on niche marketing.

“Athletic fields must irrigate, and their biggest problem is how to get rid of the water,” Heath said. He saw his sand as the perfect base for sand-based athletic fields, and reached out to find the expertise he needed to get started. Not quite a decade later, Heath Farms is established as a producer of top-quality sod in a niche market, with his sod on a number of high-profile golf courses and sports fields. From Evergreen covers to speed spring green-up to laser leveling on fields, Heath uses high-end, innovative techniques to help assure the best quality in growing and installing sod.

Small-roll sod is harvested with a Kesmac sod harvester.

“We’re small,” he said of the operation he has with his daughter, Heidi. With about 150 acres of mostly bluegrass sod, Heath Farms’ sod is now on several baseball fields, soccer fields and golf courses, as well as lawns. With about 10 percent of the sod going to landscapers, Heath Farms is definitely in the niche market with its sand-grown sod. “We like to do sports fields best,” Heath noted.

Getting started

Dr. John Stier, turfgrass professor and department chair at the University of Wisconsin, said, “When Bob called me, I was getting about six to 10 calls a year from people who wanted to start sod operations. Most people don’t realize that growing sod is very different from growing row crops, and that sod takes almost daily maintenance.” Stier and Heath discussed the difficulties of entering the sod industry, which included potentially investing $100,000 in equipment and products the first year while facing the possibility of losing that investment. “When he told me he could do that, I knew Bob was serious,” Stier said.

Adding Mark Grundman, Jacklin Seed/Simplot representative, and Rich Riggs, a sports field consultant, to the team of expert consultants, Heath looked toward growing sod targeted primarily for sports fields. Sports fields have a problem with drainage, and sod grown on sand is less likely to form layers that hold water.

Heath said, “We found a mentor in Dennis Robinson, Horst Distributing, Chilton, Wis.” Horst distributes Jacobsen, Smithco and Turfco equipment; Jacklin Seed; fertilizers; and herbicides. Robinson said, “Bob is interested in growing the best product, not in growing the highest volume. He is growing what sports fields and golf courses need.” Robinson noted that Heath Farms is one of only four sites that grows sod on sand.

Heath and his daughter’s dedication to quality, along with the sandy soil on which they grow the sod, an ample supply of water and a ready group of workers provide the right combination for a successful sod operation.

Two high-profile projects paved the way for Heath’s entry into the sports field and golf course sod markets. “When Wadsworth Development was working on the Northern Bay Golf Resort, Arkdale, Wis., I took some of my sod over to them,” Heath said. Heath Farms was awarded the job, and over two years, laid several hundred thousand yards of sod. Additional work at Whistling Straits and Black Wolf Run in Kohler and The Wilderness in Wisconsin Dells launched Heath Farms as a supplier of quality sod to golf courses.

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers Baseball Field in Appleton represented Heath’s entry into major sports field work. Heath Farms stripped sod from the 10-year-old stadium field. The Rattlers distributed the removed sod free to the community, and Heath installed a new field. Heath Farms sod is on Miller Park, home to the Milwaukee Brewers, and the University of Akron soccer fields. Fifteen semi-loads of sod were hauled 600 miles to the soccer fields in Akron.

The first spring mowing of a bluegrass field following the use of an Evergreen cover to promote green-up about two weeks earlier than normal.

Growing and marketing sod

After extensive exploration into starting a sod operation, Heath planted his first fields. “We bought a seeder and hooked it to a 30-year-old tractor and planted 15 acres of Kentucky bluegrass,” Grundman said. “We worked with Mark to figure out the blends needed, and I continue to plant what he recommends. He follows the NTEP recommendations. He’s close enough that if we have a problem, he can come by and recommend steps that we should take.”

A semi-truck is loaded with big rolls of sod for delivery.

In addition to the low-mow Kentucky bluegrass, Heath grows chewings fescue. Robinson noted, “Bob is the only sod grower I’m aware of who is growing chewings fescue without netting.” Robinson said that the high rate of seeding used by Heath allows the chewings fescue to be grown and harvested without the netting that is usually required. Heath grows several varieties of bentgrass, and is currently growing a 2-acre trial of a fescue-bluegrass mix. Robinson noted the importance of training low-mow turf to the height at which it will be maintained. In addition to the standard 2-inch height, Heath Farms grows low-mow bluegrass that is regularly mowed at 5/8 inch for golf course use.

Heath currently uses a Brillion, 10-row seeder. He uses Jacobsen reel-type mowers along with Turfco and Smithco turf equipment. He harvests with a Magnum Big Roll harvester and a Kesmac small roll harvester. Irrigation is essential in most sod growing today, and with Heath’s sand, it would be impossible to grow without irrigation. “Without irrigation, I wouldn’t have a farm,” Heath said. “We can go three or four weeks in summer without rain.”

Heath Farms uses center pivot irrigation with both Valley and Lindsay irrigation equipment. “There’s no better irrigation than center pivot,” Heath said. A number of wells are located throughout the farm, and both fertigation and granular fertilizer application are used to establish and maintain sod.

Heath incorporates innovative growing and installation practices into his sod operation to improve quality and efficiency. Laser leveling is now being done, and Evergreen turf covers are used on small portions of bluegrass turf used for the Milwaukee Brewers. The turf covers help protect the turf from ice when no snow cover is present, and encourage green-up about two weeks earlier than normal.

Heath cited the importance of diversification in farming operations. Initially growing green beans and other vegetables for the canning industry, Heath Farms now produces fresh market produce, including peppers, zucchini, sweet corn and other vegetables, in addition to the 150 acres of sod. Heidi owns 80 greenhouses at the operation and is a major wholesale produce supplier to the region.

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.