Dealing with flooded fields

Steve Greil and Rick Beck, co-owners of Wind Lake Turf in Union Grove, Wis., will soon be harvesting Kentucky bluegrass sod planted last fall. That may sound like a routine task on a Midwestern turf farm, but given that just a year ago in June 2008, much of the sod at Wind Lake Turf was covered with 4 to 5 feet of water, replanting and harvesting within just over a year’s time is quite an accomplishment. Wind Lake Turf lost about 100 acres of first-quality sod to the flood waters, despite extensive efforts that salvaged several fields.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF WIND LAKE TURF.
Four to 5 feet of water covered much of Wind Lake Turf fields in June 2008.

Greil and Beck expected to face challenges when they jointly purchased an existing sod farm in southern Wisconsin in February 2008, but the challenges they have faced have been far greater than anticipated. A downturned economy and June floods were completely unexpected when they started their venture.

Fertilizer is applied to a newly seeded field.

“During our first year, we’ve been going backwards,” Greil said. Despite a difficult first year of operation, Greil and Beck are on the road to recovering from losses in the major floods thanks to seven-day workweeks and good relationships with other growers to supplement their sod needs. They have continued harvesting salvaged sod and will be harvesting the reseeded fields this summer.

Greil and Beck purchased the sod farm in after working in the sod industry for many years. Both Greil and Beck grew up on farms. Greil had worked in the sod industry in various jobs, working his way up to managing sod fields, and Beck hauled sod for a number of years. By 2008, they decided to enter the industry on their own and obtained loans to purchase the existing sod farm. Greil and Beck leased additional land to grow about 350 acres of mostly Kentucky bluegrass along with about 20 acres each of salt-tolerant turfgrass and fescue, and about 3 trial acres of Poa supine, a shade-tolerant bluegrass blend.

A 9-square-mile area known as Wind Lake Marsh in southeast Wisconsin contains a heavy, wet, black peat soil that provides an excellent growing base for sod. At one time, vegetables were grown extensively in the area, but as the demand for more profitable sod increased with metropolitan development, the area evolved into a significant sod-producing location. Wind Lake Turf services customers, mostly landscape contractors, within about a 125-mile radius that includes the greater Chicago and Milwaukee metropolitan areas with a few customers in the Madison area.

Coping with flooded fields

“We had about 12 inches rain over three days in June last year,” Greil said. “We have a lot of low-lying peat soil. Our field tiles drain into metal tanks, and we have drainage canals that drain into a main canal. The main canal eventually drains into the Fox River. With heavy rains, both Wind Lake and Fox River overflow, and the canals overflow their banks.”

The June 2008 floods were major disasters in the upper Midwest. “FEMA set up just down the road from us. Lots of people here in Racine County were without power,” Greil said.

Salvaged bluegrass sod is harvested.

Salvaging as much sod as possible quickly became a 24-hour-a-day undertaking with everybody working the fields to pump the water off as quickly as possible. Greil said, “We just got extra pumps to supplement the pumps we already had in the fields and started pumping. Some of our sod is on higher-level mineral land. We salvaged most of the sod, losing about 100 acres.” After the fields were drained, they were allowed to dry and prepared for September reseeding.  

While flooded fields aren’t unusual in the low-lying area, flooding usually occurs in early spring. Although water may stand on the fields for a short time, it usually drains, and with the cooler spring temperatures, the flood conditions do not damage the sod.  

Heavy flooding in hot June temperatures, however, is another story. “It just basically cooks the turfgrass,” Beck said. In addition to lost income on the flooded sod, Wind Lake Turf incurred costs for extra fuel and labor. Beck noted, “The fuel costs were high to run the pumps 24 hours a day.”  

“It’s especially hard for us,” he said. “A lot of sod farms are passed down through the generations, but we have big loans since we purchased the sod farm just last year.”  

Wind Lake Turf was able to purchase sod to make up any shortfall for customers. Due to the flooding, sod had to be purchased from sod farms out of the immediate area. “We have a good relationship with other sod farmers and were able to purchase sod to supply our customers.” Greil noted

Greil and Beck are coping with the downturned economy by trying to cut costs wherever possible, and they are minimizing labor costs as much they can. “Steve and I are both in the fields seven days a week,” Beck said. Wind Lake Turf employs about 10 people full time, and normally would add several high school students during cutting, but only two students are being added this summer. “You have to take care of the equipment you have by keeping it in better shape. You can’t buy new equipment.”

Managing sod fields

Technology is important in helping Wind Lake Turf operate efficiently. A Trebro Autostack was included in the purchase of the sod farm, and GPS is used in spraying and fertilizing applications, providing more efficient use of products and saving costs.

In addition to the 350 acres of Kentucky bluegrass grown, about 20 acres of salt-tolerant turfgrass is grown to Illinois Department of Transportation specifications and used primarily for roadside work in the Chicago area. Both the bluegrass and salt-tolerant turfgrass is grown from seed supplied by National Seed. About 20 acres of Black Beauty fescue from Jonathan Green is grown, which Greil noted fescue is popular for its drought tolerance and its durability on sports fields. About 3 acres of Poa supina, a highly shade-tolerant bluegrass blend, is being grown.

Irrigation is provided from on-site wells. “We have five center-pivot irrigation units and six Boss guns that we can move around,” Greil said. Water is carried to the fields in underground PVC water mains.

Managing the partnership comes easy to them with their relatively clear-cut division of labor. “Steve takes care of the spraying, fertilizing and tells me where we’ll cut,” Beck said. “I take care of the trucking and marketing. I usually try to hit the road a half day a week to connect with landscapers. We have our separate jobs, but we help each other out.”

Both Greil and Beck cited changes in the sod industry over the years.  “The new disease-resistant seed varieties that have improved even in the last five or six years are great,” Greil said. They also said that equipment improvements contribute to more efficient operation by reducing labor.

Wind Lake Turf is a member of Turf Producers International, Wisconsin Green Industry, Wisconsin Landscape Contractors Association and Wisconsin Sod Growers, where Greil currently serves on the board.

“One of the issues we work on is encouraging the use of more sod,” Greil said.

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.