Downsized and Happier for It
Longtime Pennsylvania sod grower Comly's Turf adjusts to meet today's leaner market
The Comly brothers downsized their sod farm just before the collapse of the housing market and the Great Recession. "It was more luck than brains," claims co-owner Keith Comly.
Photos courtesy of Comly's Turf.
Keith Comly is fond of taking a trip down memory lane when it comes to show and tell with the harvesting tools of the turf farm trade. On the wall in the offices of Comly's Turf in Wycombe, Pa., hang an old canvas-bag hand seeder, a Planet Jr. edger-cutter and a long-handled turf lift, a bent spatula-ended implement. Mostly they're what his grandfather and father used.
Fast-forward the 57 years Comly's has been in business, and beginning with the decision to downsize in 2006, the family purchased a robotic self-stacking harvester with a floating cutting head for consistent automated cuts. It's made the still considerable workload manageable, even allowing them to operate without employees, another management decision.
But there's a wall of photos - all sun-faded from the many years - in the office, too, that tell the story of the evolution of not only the industry but the long-successful Pennsylvania company. There are turf cutters on sleds and more innovations, experiments and adaptations.
Now, Comly's Turf is well into its fourth generation. Roland R. Comly began the business in 1956. His son Newton M. Comly followed suit before and after earning a degree in agricultural studies at Penn State. Now, his sons, Newton R. "Duke" Comly, who followed at Penn State, but specifically in turf management, and Keith R. Comly, who studied agronomy at Colorado State, run the day-to-day operations. Keith's sons, Keith N. Comly and Mark M. Comly, represent the fourth generation. Both in college, Mark is studying agricultural science at Penn State.
Owners: Brothers Newton R. "Duke" Comly and Keith R. Comly
Headquarters: Wycombe, Pa.
Markets: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware
Services: Sod farm, grass seed, weed and feed, sod rolls, soil preparation, crabgrass control, turfgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, field turf, watering sod and turf food
The working 56-acre home farm was put into agricultural preservation in 2012, a point the family is proud of - as proud as weathering the years of hardships. Before the move to Bucks County where Newton planted the first .25-acre of turf, Roland's initial non-turf farm not only suffered 11 acres of glass greenhouse hailstone damage in 1942, but then he was eventually evicted by the city of Philadelphia which used eminent domain to claim the farm as future ground for the Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
Thrust into the business
Years later, Keith's father was hurt in a farm accident. Newton was crushed by a large packer seeder and remained in a body cast for years. He died when his sons were young, and they were thrust into the business, mowing and stacking sod after school at piecework rates. "We would get so much a pallet and marked the pallets with a stake and have our name on it," Keith recalls.
The brothers grew operations to staggering numbers in the 1980s and '90s. They had 860 mostly-rented acres planted in turf. There were three harvesters and seven delivery trucks. Comly's was one of the first to commercially produce bentgrass for putting greens, and there's an old wooden-shaft golf club mounted on an office wall among other antique accruements like a W.D. Allen Mfg. Co. cast iron lawn sprinkler. They even shipped bentgrass to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Virginia. Once, Comly's bentgrass was trucked as far as Wyoming in a refrigerated trailer along with half a load of frozen chicken. It was the only commercial truck available to go that far.
"People were probably starving and we were shipping sod across the country," Keith says.
Comly's was among the first to begin commercial turf installation and maintenance in major sports venues like Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania and old Connie Mack Stadium (formerly Shibe Park), all documented on sun-faded newspaper clippings on the office's walls.
The Comly brothers farm 120 acres and produce crops of Kentucky bluegrass sod featuring Thermal Blue Blaze, a heat-tolerant cultivar.
Fewer acres, less stress
Following the downsizing, the brothers are farming an intentionally reduced 120 acres without employees.
"It was more luck than brains," Keith says about the timing of the decision to cutback before the economic crash.
In keeping on the cutting edge, though, Comly's has featured a new crop of grass the last few years when the brothers noticed that the summers were either getting hotter. Or, perhaps, it was just because they were getting older. Or both.
Either way, the end result was that sizzling summers were hurting their crop and their profit margins. To contend, they have now planted almost exclusively a blend of Kentucky bluegrass with a Thermal Blue Blaze, an extreme heat tolerant variety. This year, they've harvest and been selling the first of those fields planted two years ago.
"It's really been wonderful," Keith says. "It makes good sod."
Several years ago, with larger acreage, Comly's had turf-type tall fescue, but it didn't always lift well unless they used netting, and that was more expensive, so they had to let fields grow longer. In a drought, bluegrass goes dormant, then would come back, but with heat stress (not drought), there was damage, stress to the point of loss.
The Comly's customized their harvesting machine by attaching a Trebro robotic StackIt on the back of a conventional harvester.
Now with smaller acreage it's important to have sod that will be tolerant, form a sustainable root system and sod that lifts easily and quickly. "We've tried to get the best of bluegrass with the toughness of a tall fescue," Keith says.
A different market now
There's an office sign at Comly's: "We harvest sod early so it can be installed and watered before the heat of the day." The "H" in heat is dressed in orange flames. It's appropriate and a good reminder of sodding best practices, but it could never have prepared them for the bad economic times that befell the industry after the 2008 housing market collapse.
"Everything stopped," Keith says. "There was nothing commercial, no new golf courses, no home building. The niche now is the wholesale trade to landscapers or the retail market to homeowners who are installing their own little backyard oasis. They've added hardscaping, an outdoor kitchen or a water feature and they need to finish off the area with four or five pallets of sod. That's not a trailer full, but they keep coming in for it."
The Comlys were resourceful in customizing their harvesting machine that follows the contour of the field and lifts uniform quality cut sod. They bought a conventional harvester, then attaching a Trebo robotic StackIt on the back of it, reducing what might have been a $400,000 investment into a more sensible $170,000 one. If it would breakdown, and it hasn't in its seven years, there's a "conventional old Betsy backup."
Each sod roll is 2-by-5 feet (or 10 square feet). Each roll will range between 30 to 55 pounds depending on moisture. There are 540 square feet (54 rolls) on a pallet, which varies between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds, averaging 1 to 1.5 tons.
"It's amazing, even dripping wet," Keith says of the robotics. "It goes and goes, and we're always like, 'Yeah!' But it's still a lot of work, but we used to pick up each roll and hand stack them into stacks which were then moved with a forklift."
Even then, Comly's was ahead of its time and among the first in turf farm circles to use Foxcroft forklifts attached to boom trucks. One day, they began calling a new lift "The Spider," and soon Foxcroft Manufacturing was calling its wheel motor The Spider. As a thank you, the company gave Comly's a free machine. The company was among the first in the country to have it. This was in the early 1970s.
Among the difficulties of staying in the turf growing business are its obvious seasonal restrictions. Keith says it's too seasonal. Comly's will harvest fresh sod from the second week of March up to Christmas.
In its heyday, Comly's would sell as much turf as it could grow. Other competitors came onto the scene, but didn't affect Comly's. "We had an established name," Keith says. "Today, everyone takes a piece, but I would say a lot of newcomers went back to crops. They plowed down their turf fields as the price of corn and other commodities went up. (The downturned economy) weeded out a lot of the large wholesale guys."
Any newcomers, he says, always priced product under Comly's numbers, which have been consistent. But Comly's has never printed a price list, and it's never dropped its prices.
"You can't drop your price," Keith says. "You just can't, not with the price of parts, tires, tools, fuel and taxes."
Outsiders still think Comly's must make a lot of money. Keith says that's because they've remained in business. It helped that Comly's was positioned in a lucrative market - Bucks County, the Philadelphia Main Line and across the Delaware River from New Jersey - and always kept the place looking nice.
They love to share stories about farming and display some of the equipment that was used in the family sod operation, which was founded in 1957 by their grandfather.
"We've taken pride in that," he says. "But they must drive by and think, 'Wow, there must be some money in that.'"
There's certainly time in it. "To get quality sod it takes 18 months to two years," Keith says.
After harvesting, the soil is rotated to break up compaction, then finished off with a land leveler before it is re-seeded. During the growing season, the fields are fertilized, sprayed and mowed.
When resting a field, Keith, who is the primary grower, will plant a cover crop, say soybeans, then disc them in, giving back to the soil and keeping down the cost of fertilizer, once $170 a ton, but now more likely $600 a ton and upwards of $800 a ton. "It will never be $170 a ton again," he says.
It was a good thing to downsize and the right time position it to go on successfully. "You can't just say, 'This is what we do, the way we've always done it and the way we always will,'" Keith says.
Instead, the decision to downsize was both the "trick and the ticket."
"I couldn't imagine having a payroll now," he says. "With almost 900 acres, you couldn't do it without all the farm labor, but with all that labor you still end up doing all the work, and without it you still can't get away because there's no one to cover for you."
Trucking and fuel costs have skyrocketed. So in reverse, Comly's does a large pickup business, essential because sod is a fresh, perishable product.
"There's no shelf life," Keith says. "It's all cut fresh to order. Most of our landscapers call ahead. We call Saturday 'Homeowner's Day,'" and that's OK because the do-it-yourself market represents about half the business, and the Comlys will just as eagerly load residential customers, counting rolls of sod like hay farmers count bales.
Product sales were a natural additional revenue stream added in the late 1980s. Now, the product store offers Comly's own turf food fertilizer and premium grass seed and industry-quality weed and feed, preemergent, etc.
"At first we thought, 'Why sell seed? We're competing with ourselves,'" Keith remembers. "Then, we figured others are going to buy seed anyway, so it might as well be quality seed from us. If you buy cheap seed, it only creates problems. It's like putting bad tires on a race car; you're not going to win the race."
What Comly's has learned most in its many years is that its bread and butter is the landscaper, and you don't betray your best customer. Let them install the turf you grow and harvest. Serve them.
"It's so important for them to get their materials, gas up and go," Keith says. "We try to be like a quality farm market, a convenience service, and once you're providing a quality product you get them to the point where the quality of service will keep them coming back. They will even pay a couple cents more per square foot because you're convenient. They rush in here - boom, boom - we load them up. Convenience means so much to these guys."
The long haul
Over the years Comly's has tried just about every related alternative revenue stream. There was a time they went through trailer loads of mulch in mulch's early heyday. Then, once everyone began making and selling it, the Comlys got out of the mulch business. It was part of learning not to betray their bread and butter business.
There were days when they always installed their own turf. The thought was that you could make a lot of money installing per square foot, essentially operating as a contractor, and that's when they installed it on golf courses and other sports fields.
There's no shelf life for sod, so it's all cut fresh to order on the Comly farm. Landscapers call ahead. The do-it-yourself market represents about half of the Comly brother's business.
But it's also still about space utilization as on any farm, and there's unused lot space that the brothers wonder how to best utilize. They once maintained nursery stock. They also sold equipment, including Toro, Snapper and Massey Ferguson (their own longtime tractor preference) for seven years. The property still holds a variance to deal in equipment or agriculture-related business. Duke, who is handier with fixing equipment, does some shop work on the side.
The author is a gentleman farmer and experienced reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.