|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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.