B&B Hoffman Sod Farms focuses on quality product, customer service

Small sod rolls are harvested with Brouwer 3910 harvesters.
Photos courtesy of B&B Hoffman Sod Farms, Inc.

Changes in the sod industry brought about by mechanization have helped define the industry’s direction. Minnesota sod producer Bob Hoffman of B&B Hoffman Sod Farms, Inc. in Elk River, Minn., has been involved in the sod industry through many of those changes. Mechanization, seed improvements and lowered sod demand continue to impact the sod industry.

Hoffman said the sod industry involved hard work prior to mechanization. “It was all manual and very hard,” he said. “As the sod business became more mechanized in the early 1970s, the number of sod farms in our area more than tripled.”

However, that number is shrinking today as the economic downturn has slowed construction and reduced demand.

Providing a quality product and maintaining good customer relations are significant to B&B Hoffman Sod Farms’ success. The family-owned sod operation, located just outside Minneapolis, grows sod on three sod farms within a 30-mile radius. They grow about 400 acres of Kentucky bluegrass, supplying both large and small rolls to the wholesale and retail markets.

“We’ve not been affected as much by the economy as I thought we might be,” Hoffman said, noting that B&B Hoffman Sod has retained a number of long-term customers, and most new business is by referral or based on observations of the company’s quality sod.

Hoffman had a farm background, and he hauled sod for a number of years before he began growing it. He and his brother, Bill, started B&B Hoffman Sod in 1989. Initially, they operated the sod business in two distant locations, later separating the business to avoid extensive travel between the sites. In addition to Bob, the company includes his wife Robin and his daughter Shelly Watters, who manage the office. His son, Scott, works in sod production. The number of employees the company has varies with seasonal needs. Currently, seven full-time workers are employed, which peaks to about 12 during high-demand times. Hoffman noted that labor needs in most of the sod industry have decreased substantially with increased mechanization.

About 75 percent of the sod grown by B&B Hoffman Sod is sold to builders, landscapers, golf courses and municipalities, with the rest sold directly to homeowners, and the company works with landscaping companies to provide sodding and landscaping services. Most of the sod is sold in small rolls on pallets, with about 10 percent sold as big rolls. B&B Hoffman Sod delivers sod statewide via four trucks, and pickup sales are also offered.

Growing sod

Hoffman emphasized the importance of producing quality sod. “Providing clean sod that is weed-free is important. We always reseed and don’t regrow our sod,” he said. “We use mostly Scotts seed, and I rely on our supplier for variety selection.” He noted that variety selection is primarily based on the varieties that perform well in Minnesota’s climate. “Disease resistance and drought tolerance are important,” he said.

Shelly Watters joins her father Bob Hoffman for a quick discussion on sod orders.
A semitruck is loaded with sod pallets using an Allis Chalmers forklift.

Hoffman noted that seed improvements have been one of the major assets to the sod industry. Reducing costs, improving disease resistance and lowering water requirements are major considerations, and are areas where research continues. He cited University of Minnesota research in various areas, particularly in varieties that have lower water requirements. Water continues to be a major focus worldwide, and while areas that receive ample rainfall have less concern than arid climates, water demand of different varieties is an issue of concern.

Hoffman expects to see continued improvements regarding disease resistance and drought.

While growing sod, like all farming, can be challenging, Hoffman noted that Minnesota’s soil and climate are good for growing sod. The cool, northern climate presents few challenges to producing the Kentucky bluegrass, while ample rainfall and moderate summer temperatures that do not stress the cool-season grasses also help. B&B Sod grows its Kentucky bluegrass on peat soil, and the sod is fertilized about every six weeks with a granular fertilizer. Fertilizer products are primarily obtained from Crop Production Service in Big Lake, Minn., and Centra-Sota in Santiago, Minn.

“Growing the sod is easy. We have few growing challenges,” Hoffman said. “One of our biggest challenges is being able to harvest sod fast enough in the early fall. We can’t harvest until the frost is off the sod.” In Minnesota’s climate, frost starts about September 10. Contractors are often ready to begin installing sod early, but the sod can’t be harvested until the temperature warms up, resulting in a delay of several hours.

B&B Hoffman Sod uses three Brouwer 3910 sod harvesters to harvest standard rolls sold on pallets, and a Brouwer Rollmax for harvesting the big rolls. The Brouwer harvesters and Ford New Holland tractors are from Carlson Equipment in Rogers, Minn. Three Progressive rotary mowers from Isanti County Equipment in Isanti, Minn., are used to mow the sod, as well as Roseman mowers. Allis Chalmers forklifts are used in the fields, and Donkey forklifts are carried on the delivery trucks. Irrigation is available from two on-site wells.

Managing business in a tight economy

Hoffman said, “Staying on top of collecting payment is important. We’re very careful about not having too much owed to us now.” Additionally, Hoffman noted that B&B Hoffman Sod is more cautious about expenditures. “We see a lot of our competition going under or converting to row crops,” he said. “We’re just being very cautious about our expenses.”

With new home construction being drastically reduced, fewer jobs exist to support the number of landscapers bidding on them. B&B Hoffman Sod has a number of established customers who are major assets to the business, especially during this time.

The homeowner market is particularly difficult in the tight economic times. “We see more price shopping,” Hoffman said. “Educating homeowner customers about the difference in sod is a major challenge. We recently lost a bid on a price difference of 10 cents a yard. It’s important to educate consumers who don’t realize the difference in seed blends and the difference in quality of the sod.”

Customer satisfaction

B&B Hoffman Sod provides sod care instruction to homeowners on their Web site and in person, as well as offering follow-up visits when needed.

“Honesty with our customers is one of the most important things,” Hoffman said. Customer service is emphasized not only with family management, but also with the entire staff at B&B Hoffman Sod.

Watters noted, “We try to keep our customers happy by having their sod when they need it, and if there’s a problem with the sod, we try to fix it. I’ve gone to look at yards when a customer has a problem to help figure out what the problem is so we can fix it.”

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.