Turf Magazine - February, 2009

CENTRAL FEATURES

All in the Family

Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping stays strong after three generations
By Nancy Riggs
Photos by Lee Riggs.
The Kelch crew works on a street side project in Peoria, Ill. Daniel Kelch, left, talks with Chad Kelch during sod cutting.

Chad Kelch is a third-generation, central Illinois turf producer. Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping in Kickapoo, Ill., just outside Peoria, is owned by his father, Daniel, whose father LaVerne started the turfgrass farm in 1939. A few years later, LaVerne began installing lawns for new homes purchased by returning WWII veterans, and the firm has continued a tradition of carefully controlled expansion. Today, the company generates between $1.5 and $2 million annual revenue, and Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping relies on excellent service and effective communication in today’s challenging economic environment.

While turfgrass sales are down following the housing industry slowdown, landscaping continues to be strong. Kelch said, “Our single greatest advertising tool is our sod and service—and the word-of-mouth advertising that is generated from that.”

Kelch said, “In our sod division, I feel our service is what really sets us apart. Customers demand prompt, courteous service. We strive to serve our customers’ needs as quickly as possible. We understand that time is money. In our landscaping service, we listen to the customers, we stay within budget, and we’re there when we say we’ll be there.”

Growing turfgrass

Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping is currently growing about 100 acres of bluegrass and about 20 acres of Illinois Department of Transportation salt-tolerant blend. “We have enough ground to raise 200 acres of sod,” Kelch said, “but with the economic downturn, the remaining 80 is in row crops.”

Seeding is done from August through mid-September. Any field harvested after September is in 90-day soybeans that are harvested by the following September when the field is turned back into sod.

“We use a Brillion seeder. Our ground is plowed, worked down, land-leveled, fertilized and limed if needed, then seeded. We fertilize often enough to encourage growth as quickly as possible,” Kelch said. “On our sandy soils, we fertilize more because the nutrients leach out more quickly. We sometimes fertilize six or more times in a season. We try to spoon-feed the turf. We fertilize more often with a lower rate. We mow every other day in peak season.”

Mike Doering picks up a pallet of freshly cut turf to load on to a semi for delivery. Bluegrass turf is ready for cutting.

Although central Illinois receives ample rainfall, irrigation has become common in growing most crops and almost a necessity in turf production. Kelch said, “Irrigation is critical ... We irrigate every day when needed in summer.” Irrigation sources include a 4-acre lake that holds irrigation water and irrigation ditches, which was recently reconstructed. The lake now serves not only as an irrigation water holding facility, but also as a recreational location for friends and family. Pumps are powered by diesel tractor PTOs, allowing easy movement of the pumps to various fields as needed.

Offering turfgrass blends that provide desired color, disease and drought tolerance is extremely important. This year, Kelch cut bluegrass that included Thermal Blue, Midnight II, Courtyard and Avalanche from Scott, and NuGlade, Freedom III, Liberator and NuDestiny from National. A Behm and Hagemann blend includes Midnight, Rambo, NuGlade and Raven.

Kelch said, “I believe color is crucial, but we do select varieties for drought and shade tolerance, spring green-up and disease resistance. We depend on NTEP [National Turfgrass Evaluation Program], as well as our suppliers for input on new varieties. Our new Scott blend just seeded this year contains Diva, Hampton, Midnight, Avalanche and Full Moon, which offers a totally diverse genetic base, and with that diversity comes excellent disease resistance.

“Our National Seed and Behm and Hagemann blends contain more Midnight, which translates to a very dark blue-green turf with the draw-back of a late spring green-up.”

The salt-tolerant grass is grown at the site surrounding the irrigation lake and is used primarily for roadside planting. It includes alkaligrass, buffalograss, tall fescue, rye, hard fescue and bluegrass.

Kelch cited the importance of equipment maintenance in keeping up with the heavy schedule of the business. “We have an excellent mechanic in Dave Groeper, so our machines are usually kept running, and major problems are dealt with at the dealers.”

Daniel Kelch operates the Poyntz sod cutter as his crew stacks turf rolls. This Kelch semi is partially loaded for morning turf delivery.

Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping uses a Poyntz Harvester. “It was built by Phil Poyntz of Sutton, Ont.,” Kelch said. “We purchased it new in 2002. We still have our first harvester, a BrouwerA3A purchased from Tom Hoerr of Greenview Nursery in Dunlap. We’re leaning toward the purchase of a new autostacker, but with the unstable economy, we’re going to take our time with that decision.”

Greenview Nursery is a primary supplier of planting materials for Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping. Kelch cited the camaraderie that exists among turf growers, pointing out that even though Greenview Nursery and Kelch Turf Farms are competitors, his father and Tom Hoerr are good friends and frequently get together socially.

Both Chad and Daniel are active members of Turfgrass Producers International (TPI) and the Midwest Sod Council. Kelch said that the professional turf organizations are extremely important to the business. “You want to stay on the cutting edge of what’s current, and the organizations allow you to stay informed on all the latest products, market trends and technology and allow you to network easily,” Kelch said.

The landscaping side of business

Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping uses about 60 percent of the turfgrass produced in its landscaping work, with retail and wholesale accounting for the other 40 percent.

Most of the landscaping projects are within a 60-mile radius of Peoria, but some projects have been completed up to 130 miles away.

Kelch noted the importance of avoiding competition with customers. “If I think that one of our customers has been consulted, I’ll simply ask the customer or landscaper if a bid has been submitted. I’ll back out of bidding on the job if one of our customers is bidding. Many of our landscape customers have contracts with building contractors, and I wouldn’t solicit business from that contractor. Most of our landscape business is commercial, while our customers are most residential. It’s really not that difficult if you’re up-front and have an open dialogue with the customer.”

In addition to turf installation, retaining wall construction has increased in recent landscaping projects. “Most walls are segmental block retaining walls. We typically use Allan Block, Versa-Lok, Keystone, Unilock and Wedgerock blocks. We also use flagstone, boulder and treated timber walls,” Kelch said.

Kelch Turf Farms and Landscaping employs 12 full-time employees and three to six part-time or seasonal employees. “We’ve found it’s more productive to keep good employees than to keep training new ones,” Kelch said. “We treat employees fairly. They work hard and deserve to make a decent living. We have employees who have been with us 22 years.”

Communicating essential to a family business

Kelch cited the importance of communication in successful operations in the family-run setting. He noted that his mother, Rebecca, and his sister Jaime Doering and husband Mike Doering, and another sister, Lindsay Meinders, work with the company. His mother fields phone calls and handles office functions, and both sisters handle office duties, as well as helping out with landscaping when needed.

“Jamie gets involved in some marketing and makes our business cards, and Mike works with trucking and sales.” Kelch, Daniel and LaVerne, have all been members of the International Union of Operating Engineers, and his sisters and other Kelch employees are members of the Laborers International Union.

“In a family business, you are working with people who expect more out of you, and this is especially true in a father-son working relationship. We sit down in the evening and make decisions based on what we feel is best. Ultimately, my dad makes decisions, but the key really is communication.”

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.