Coon Creek Sod Farms maintains its soil for a premium product
Rick Pump Sr. has a long family history in the sod business and draws on the soil knowledge of three previous generations in growing sod in his operation, Coon Creek Sod Farms, located in the western Chicago suburbs. That knowledge is now making its way to Pump’s son, Rick Jr., who works with his father. Pump’s great-grandfather grew vegetables in northern Illinois after arriving in the United States from Germany in 1867. He passed along soil knowledge to Pump’s grandfather, who started growing sod as Mueller Sod Farm in 1919 and was one of the first Chicago sod growers with much of his sod placed in cemeteries. By 1926, he was growing sod on land that is now part of O’Hare International Airport. He hauled sod from his farm to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair International Exposition.
Located in Hampshire, Ill., Coon Creek is 42 miles from downtown Chicago. Although his customer base is primarily within about a 50-mile radius, that base includes about 8 million people. “We go north to the Wisconsin line, south to Interstate 88 and west to about Rockford,” Pump said. With steady development over the last few decades, demands for sod have been heavy throughout Chicagoland. Coon Creek’s primary market area includes much of the recent upscale development of Chicagoland in western Kane County where cornfields are quickly giving way to housing and business developments.
Coon Creek’s customer base remains strong despite the downturned economy. The slowdown in building has resulted in reducing his current sod production to about 140 acres, down from about 269 acres. Pump owns 437 acres on which he also grows wheat and soybeans and will add corn next year.
His primary marketing approach is mailing out an annual price list to previous and potential customers, primarily landscape contractors. About 95 percent of Coon Creek’s sales are wholesale. Additional customers include schools, villages, cemeteries and garden centers with about 5 percent sold to retail customers. About 50 percent of Coon Creek’s sod is delivered, and 50 percent picked up at the farm. Coon Creek owns three Transcraft delivery trailers and three Princeton forklifts for unloading sod. Pump contracts hauling to Commodity Transit in Marengo. Coon Creek also sells about 10 varieties of seed and 12 types of fertilizer, as well as erosion control blankets.
Pump depends on soil testing to keep the soil at the best production level, and noted that a farm with good soil is the key to growing good sod. “My grandfather told me to find a farm that had good soil and a creek,” he said. “We have good soil to grow sod with, both Drummer and Elburn soil, and cheap water from the creeks.” These highly organic soils were formed from prehistoric marshland conditions, and their importance to agriculture and the economy of Illinois was officially established in the early 1900s.
Two streams, both carrying the name Coon Creek, run across Coon Creek Sod Farm property. Irrigation water is pumped from the creeks with Berkeley pumps using John Deere power units. The creeks are fed from field runoff and drainage from field tiles, as well as effluent water from village water treatment plants.
“We use mostly Travis linear wheel moves to irrigate our fields,” Pump said. The units include 5-inch-diameter pipes and 8 hp motors. Ag Rain units are also used for irrigation.
Coon Creek grows a threeway blend bluegrass with seed primarily obtained from Summit Seeds, Inc., Manteno. Pump conducts soil testing regularly. “We want to keep the phosphorus and potassium levels and trace minerals correct for optimum sod,” he said.
“We do extensive tillage to get a very fine texture,” Pump said. Trimac fertilizer is used with spoon-feeding to the turfgrass as indicated. Spraying for weeds is done as needed to control dandelion, henbit and clover.
“We use mostly Roseman reel-type mowers to get a good scissor cut,” Pump said. “We also have a Progressive mower.” The fields are rolled with an Ingersoll Rand roller just before harvesting. A John Deere tractor with high floatation tires is used to minimize any indentations left in the sod.
“We use a Brouwer harvester, and I’m probably one of the last to cut 18-by-16-inch strips,” Pump said.
Pump is a past-president of Sod Growers of MidAmerica and a director of the Illinois Turf Foundation, and holds memberships in Turf Producers International, Illinois Specialty Growers Association, Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, Midwestern Association of Golf Course Superintendents, Midwestern Institute of Parks and Kane County Farm Bureau.
Pump cited concern about government regulations that may adversely affect sod growers, such as water issues and the possibility of legislation that could prohibit drawing water from streams on individual property. He said, “The associations help us to grow better sod and help with government regulations and legal issues that affect sod growers.”
Mechanization of sod growing has changed the sod production dramatically over the years, and with Pump’s family history in the sod business, he is very aware of those changes. “Mechanization has reduced the labor requirements. Sod harvesting equipment has progressed from hand cutters to the Ryan, Brouwer and the new Trebro. We’re much more efficient, and we’re producing better sod.”
Pump noted the importance of maintaining good customer relations. “I learned from my father and grandfather,” Pump said. “We try to treat people like we want to be treated.”
Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.