Minnesota sod grower urges businesses to diversify

Sod is harvested with a Trebro AutoStack harvester.

Blue Valley Sod, Inc., in Winnebago, Minn., is a division of Weerts Companies, a broadly diversified company. Bob Weerts, president of Weerts Companies, began working in the sod industry in 1973 primarily as an erosion control sod installer. He began growing his own sod in 1987 after a sod supplier failed to deliver on a contract for sod.

“I decided I wasn’t going to be caught in that situation again,” Weerts said. He has continued to look for areas of growth both within and outside the green industry and has grown his business to include not only bluegrass sod production, construction and landscaping, but also widely diversified businesses. “I’m a very diversified guy,” he said.

Weerts urges sod growers to diversify their operations, both in sod-growing locations and in pursuing additional avenues of revenue-generating operations to supplement revenue. He pointed out that diversification is important for sod growers at all times, but holds special significance in the current economy that has reduced the demand for sod.

Growing a sod business

Sod for erosion control, especially in highway construction, remains a primary focus for Blue Valley Sod, along with sod for residential and commercial construction, golf courses and athletic fields. Sod is sold in both big rolls and small rolls. Magnum sod harvesters are used to cut big rolls in both 30-inch and 42-inch sizes, and are particularly recommended for larger areas. Selecting big rolls can also cut installation costs. Additionally, big rolls have fewer seams and stay in place better allowing traffic on the sod more quickly. Small rolls are sold in 24-inch sizes and cut mostly with the Trebro AutoStack harvester. Sod is trucked to customers within a five-state region.

Sod is harvested and loaded pallets are picked up in the field.

Blue Valley Sod’s southern farm and corporate office are located in Winnebago. Peat sod in 24-inch and 42-inch sizes is available, along with peat, seed rock and erosion control products. The northern farm, the largest growing site, is located in Aitkin where 24-inch, 30-inch and 42-inch sizes are available. Both peat and mineral sod is produced at this location on the Mississippi River about 100 miles south of the Canadian border. Sports fields are primarily installed with mineral sod while peat sod is used in other projects.

Blue Valley Sod & Landscaping is located in North Mankato, and sod is shipped to this site from the other locations. Numerous landscape products including rock, mulch and trees are available at this site. Erosion control products are also available at the North Mankato site, along with seeding and hydroseeding, lawn services and patio and retaining wall construction.

A significant amount of Blue Valley Sod is used by Weerts Construction in highway erosion control and other major projects. Blue Valley Sod & Landscaping installs most of the residential and smaller sod projects.

While Weerts noted that Blue Valley Sod continually looks at grasses throughout the country to select the best grass seed to produce top-quality turf, he cited customer service as an essential part of the sod growing business.

Blue Valley Sod continually looks at grasses throughout the country to select the best grass seed for top-quality turf.

“If a customer wants a specific blend, we’ll grow it,” he said, noting the importance of meeting customer requests, whether it’s a 7 a.m. pickup or other need. Blue Valley Sod stands behind its product whatever the cause of a problem may be. Weerts said, “We’ll explain the problem, but we’ll stand behind our sod.”

Properly maintaining equipment is essential, Weerts noted. He said that mechanics keep the equipment clean and regularly perform preventive maintenance, an essential part of sod operations.

Weerts’ son Daniel manages the Aitkin sod farm, the largest Blue Valley Sod site. He noted that the Trebro AutoStack sod harvester has produced a major change for the sod production industry. “It’s helped reduce labor requirements, and it’s just added an ease to harvesting sod,” Daniel said. Weerts’ son Jonathan manages the construction company, and his son-in-law, John Schavey, manages the Winnebago sod farm.

Broadening sod operations

Weerts said it is of great importance to grow sod in different locations. Minnesota has had major flooding in the past with extensive crops lost to flooding, including about 400 acres lost in Weerts’ operations in the major 1993 floods. Whether it’s flooding or other weather events, weather remains one of the strongest challenges to sod growers across the nation. Weather will often affect sod production at one site and not at another site, which sometimes is located in the same general area. By maintaining more than one growing location, the likelihood of losing full sod production, and thus losing all income and customers for the future, is minimized.

Diversification can be a saving factor for sod growers, large and small, in today’s economy with its lowered demand for sod. Weerts said that sod producers should look for niches in their particular areas. “It’s important to get people thinking outside the box,” he said. Weerts advocates exploring all options for diversification in crop production.

While demand for sod is down, diversifying production into row crops such as corn, beans and wheat can be beneficial. He said that adding an alternative crop such as pumpkins may be a good choice, and fall corn mazes are also very popular.

Weerts said that diversifying can assure income even when sod demand is down. “Sod growers can look at various possibilities like making pallets in the off-season.” he explained.

Community and professional involvement

Blue Valley Sod has sponsored Holiday by the River, an annual Christmas charity event, since 2008. The free event includes a chili supper along with other food and entertainment. While the event is free, donations are accepted for local charities to help meet community needs in tough economic times.

Holiday by the River includes everything from the free food to visits with Santa and horse and trolley rides. Carolers perform, and the nearby New Creation Church offers free parking and indoor activities for guests to warm up. Holiday by the River closes with a major fireworks display that is choreographed with Christmas music and broadcast on the local radio station KDOG-FM. Other corporate sponsors have joined Blue Valley Sod in helping with the community event.

Weerts has also been actively involved in community and professional activities. He is a member of Turf Producers International (TPI) where he has served on the board, and he is a member of Minnesota Turfgrass Association and Minnesota Landscapers Association, and he has been involved in civic activities.

Looking ahead

Weerts noted that equipment and product improvements have changed turfgrass production in the past decade. Equipment improvements have brought about major changes in safety and labor requirements. Concern about labor availability has been greatly alleviated, due in part to the economy that has increased the labor supply, but mostly to equipment changes, particularly sod harvesters that requires less labor.

Fertilizers have also improved greatly, and while costs remain a concern, the products are more reliable and require fewer applications. Seed variety improvements continue to evolve, and Weerts noted that interest remains strong in turfgrass that produces a dark green color and good texture with dense growth. Disease and drought resistance, and low-mow requirements continue to gain in popularity.

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.