Technology is important to Shamrock Turf Nurseries

Sod is harvested during peak time.
Photos Courtesy of Shamrock Turf Nurseries.

Shamrock Turf Nurseries, Momence, Ill., has one focus: growing the best possible sod. “We don’t lay sod or sell equipment,” said Mark Johnson, who has taken over the family-owned business from his father, Raymond, during the past decade. The Johnson farm is a fourth-generation family farm operation in the Kankakee River Valley, located about 50 miles due south of Chicago adjacent to the Illinois-Indiana state line. Shamrock was established in 1960 and operated turfgrass farms in both Illinois and Indiana for many years.

When Raymond officially retired in 2001, operations were consolidated to the home farm site in Illinois, and the Indiana farms were sold. Like most sod farmers, Shamrock is limiting its inventory as the demand for sod has declined in the tight economy. About 100 acres of market-ready sod was lost to flooding in 2008, which reduced the inventory. Shamrock is currently growing about 225 acres of Kentucky bluegrass sod on the 550-acre farm with the remaining land in row crops. “We were up to 1,000 acres in the 1980s,” Johnson said.

Shamrock markets sod in a 150-mile radius, although its primary market is in northwest Indiana. “There are so many sod farms in Illinois, we pulled back from marketing in the Illinois suburbs of Chicago,” Johnson said. About 75 percent of Shamrock sod is sold to landscapers, with about 25 percent sold retail, primarily through garden centers.

Wheel line irrigation is used at the farm, with surface water and wells providing irrigation water.

Johnson cited mechanization of the sod industry as the biggest change in sod production in the half century since Shamrock was established. Mechanization, computerization and the use of GPS has helped the sod industry meet the heavy demands of the 1990s, and is helping the industry adapt to a changing market in the recent economic shift. He sees a combination of technology use and customer loyalty as key factors in successful operations.

Technology enhances efficiency

“I have gone from walking behind a hand sod cutter, which was my first job when I was 10 years old, to using GPS in my spraying program,” Johnson said, emphasizing the changes within the industry. “When Brouwer came out with the mechanized harvester, it changed the industry. Now that Trebro has its harvester perfected, it’s another major change,” he said. Shamrock uses a Brouwer Rollmax to harvest big rolls and a Trebro AutoStack to harvest standard rolls.

Freshly cut sod is loaded for delivery.

Johnson pointed out the various ways that technology contributes to efficiency, and to bottom-line profitability in his sod operation. Although fully retired, Raymond remains interested in the sod operation. “When I first showed him the Trebro, he really lit up and accepted it,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t know how to run it, but he understands its efficiency.”

Labor availability has always been a major consideration for growers in the traditionally labor-intensive sod growing industry. With the new technology essentially allowing one person to harvest sod, labor needs are significantly reduced. “We’re down to needing only 10 summer employees during peak sod harvesting,” Johnson said. He noted that the ability of manufacturers to provide the service and parts that may be needed from the Montana manufacturing location as key to its success for growers.

Computers have earned their place in the sod industry for all aspects of the business from computer-controlled harvesting to bookkeeping to the essential dispatching that assures on-time delivery. While Johnson noted that issues within the trucking industry are challenging to sod producers, computerized dispatching is a major boon. “Insurance requirements that drivers must meet can make it challenging to hire and keep drivers,” he said. He noted that many of the issues associated with trucking affect sod deliveries in operations that maintain their own fleets and those that contract deliveries, but emphasized the importance of on-time delivery and reliability. Donkey forklifts from Sales Midwest, Inc., Olathe, Kan., are carried on the trucks to help facilitate unloading. “They’re lighter than other models,” he noted. Case forklifts are used for loading pallets in the fields.

GPS contributes not only to growing better sod, but also to controlling costs by using products only where needed. Along with other technologies, soil testing allows growers to know precisely what they need to apply to their individual soils. “We use a custom-blended starter fertilizer based on our soil tests,” Johnson said. “Co-Alliance from Valparaiso, Ind., applies the spray application, and we make one more incorporation before the final seedbed preparation. Johnson emphasized the importance of leveling in proper seedbed preparation.

Shamrock uses wheel line irrigation, with surface water in ditches and wells providing irrigation water. Most pumps are electric. Johnson said, “We still have some diesel pumps, and they’re good pumps and are portable. We normally irrigate in the summer, but the past two summers have been unusually wet. We had some older fields that we wanted to slow down, [since there’s been] less demand for sod, so we didn’t routinely irrigate.”

Marketing and customer loyalty

Marketing is a major factor in the sod business. While an established sod operation retains many loyal customers, Johnson noted that keeping the business name at the forefront is important. “People need to remember you’re still in business,” he said. “For example, if you don’t have an ad in the yellow pages of the telephone directory, people may think you’ve gone out of business.” Shamrock advertises in the yellow pages and newspapers and sponsors radio public service advertisements. “We go to home shows, and that’s where we can really explain to homeowners the differences in their lawns between seeding and sodding,” he said.

Johnson also emphasizes that customer loyalty is a key element. “It’s especially important now with so much grass out there,” he said. “Some sod growers cut prices, but we’ve never done that. We depend on customer loyalty.” Johnson noted that retaining customer loyalty is sometimes more important than the profit on a particular sale. “We replaced one entire yard where the landscaping crew had not removed a bad roll,” he said. “We could see that it wasn’t the landscaper, but our name that would be damaged, so we replaced the entire yard. While that homeowner may not buy from us, he is definitely a champion for our sod.”

Avoiding competition with primary customers is important in the sod industry. Johnson emphasized that Shamrock does not lay sod, because that would be competing with its primary customers, landscapers. “Most of our retail is through garden centers, and if it’s picked up here at the farm, it’s usually an order through the garden center. We sell direct from the farm if someone calls us, but our price is higher than the garden centers, so we’re not in competition with them,” he said.

A Trebro AutoStack that was purchased three and a half years ago increases harvesting efficiency.

Shamrock employs four people year-round. “We have a collection of antique tractors we’ve restored,” Johnson said. “It helps keep our people busy when we can’t work in the fields. Our most recent find is a 1938 Graham-Bradley.” The rare tractor was manufactured in Detroit during The Great Depression and sold by Sears Roebuck and Company through its catalog and stores. Shamrock’s tractors are sometimes featured in parades or exhibits.

Shamrock is a member of the Illinois Turfgrass Foundation, the Midwest Turf Association, Turfgrass Producers International (TPI), the Farm Bureau and several local organizations. “My wife and I have had opportunities to travel with TPI,” Johnson said. He noted the advantage of meeting with other producers and exchanging ideas. His father is a past president of the American Sod Producers Association.

“Sod producers are competitors, but we need each other,” he said. “More public relations are needed for the sod industry. More people need to know the importance of grass in managing runoff and improving air quality.”

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.