Turfgrass takes over former tobacco farm

Sandhill fescue fields receive overhead irrigation.
Photos courtesy of Sandhill Turf

Sandhill crews install turf at Kenan Stadium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Sandhill redid the Washington Redskins’ turf at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., following a concert last fall.

North Carolina State University’s (NCSU) Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research and Education says that turfgrass is the most commonly produced ornamental crop in the southeastern United States. About 2 million acres of the crop are grown in North Carolina. Although about 60 percent of the turf is used for landscaping single-family homes, it’s also placed in recreational and athletic venues and surrounds a variety of commercial and community structures.

Because the state is situated in the transition zone for cool and warm-season grasses, a wide range of varieties are produced. The cool-season grass tall fescue is the most commonly grown species. NCSU (www.ncsu.edu) has evaluated 113 tall fescue varieties and gives an excellent rating to dozens, including Bravo, Matador, Piedmont and Wolfpack. Other viable cool-season grasses include creeping bentgrass, fine fescue, Kentucky bluegrass, annual ryegrass and perennial ryegrass.

Bermudagrass is the most popular warm-season grass; bahiagrass, carpetgrass, centipedegrass, St. Augustinegrass and zoysiagrass also are commonly grown.

Sandhill Turf

Charles and Mark Harris’ grandparents used to farm tobacco, fruits and vegetables, but as the older generation retired and passed away, the family land lay fallow for more than a decade. Their father researched possible crops to plant and started a 7-acre trial plot of fescue in 1986. Investing in sod harvesters and mowers, he was able to repurpose some old farm equipment, such as tractors. Today, Sandhill Turf, Inc. (www.sandhillturf.com), in Candor, N.C., boasts 700 acres of sod in production, overseen by the brothers.

That’s a good location from both a production and business standpoint. The region’s earth is 90 percent sand-based soil, which doesn’t require amendments for grass crops. Crops grow deeper roots, increasing their hardiness, but producers face water crises in the event of drought. Sandhill is centrally located, facilitating customer servicing through North Carolina. Easy interstate access aids in out-of-state deliveries.

“Our turf, grown in sandy soil, is good for athletic fields, as they’re built on sandy surfaces so they can drain and be playable [following rain],” Mark says. “We choose our varieties to give the end user the best results.”

Grady Miller, a professor with NCSU’s department of crop science, adds that the entire state is well-suited to growing sod. In fact, varying weather conditions from the mountains to the coast mean that several different varieties can be produced successfully.

Sandhill employs 20 people year-round and adds 10 more employees during the harvest season. Bermudagrass varieties include Tifway 419, TifSport and T-10, and the company also grows El Toro zoysia, TifBlair centipede, Piedmont Gold fescue and bentgrass for golf course greens. The North Carolina Crop Improvement Association, verifying genetic purity, certifies all the varieties. Certified sod is warranted to be free of noxious weeds.

Varieties such as fescue are planted around Labor Day for March harvesting, and warm-season grasses, such as bermuda, go in the ground in mid-May and are ready for use in August. Fertilizers, preemergents, herbicides and insecticides are used, along with center-pivot, aboveground irrigation. Spring-fed surface ponds meet water needs at Sandhill Turf.

Komet Twin 160 Pro water guns are used to irrigate turf at Carter-Finley Stadium at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

The nature of turf brings both challenges and advantages in the harvesting process. Unlike most crops, not all turfgrasses are annual crops. Some require 18 months of growth time before harvest. That characteristic is compounded by the fact that it isn’t suitable for storage. On the plus side, it doesn’t rot in the field if demand or prices are low, as sod can remain in place until market conditions improve.

Since sod doesn’t have a long shelf life, Sandhill Turf cuts on order and ships within 24 hours. Magnum sod harvesters are used to cut the turf into large rolls (3.5 feet wide by 80 feet long), slabs or small hand-size rolls. The harvester’s blades vibrate under the sod and move it onto a conveyor.

Making it pay off

Mark says his family’s turf is marketed through advertising in industry magazines and word-of-mouth. Sandhill also has a partnership with Buy Sod (www.buysod.com ) that facilitates relationships with Lowe’s Home Improvement and John Deere landscape stores. Charles co-founded the organization in 2002. Today, Buy Sod is the largest certified sod producer in the Carolinas and Virginia with over 4,000 acres of certified sod production through its network of growers offering more than a dozen varieties of turfgrass sod.

In addition, products are marketed to landscaping firms, athletic fields and golf courses. While most of Sandhill’s clients are located in North Carolina and neighboring states, the company has managed the Washington Redskins’ playing surface at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., for nine years. Sandhill products have traveled north to Cape Cod, Mass., south to Alabama and west to Kansas City, Mo. Golf courses throughout the state use Sandhill grass, including several well-known venues in Pinehurst. Collegiate clients include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. This spring, Sandhill is scheduled to install 2.5 acres of TifWay 419 at the WinstonSalem Dash’s new minor league baseball stadium.

Installation

Installation is available for commercial, organizational and residential clients. A crew of eight can install turf on a football field in two to three days. Typically, the site is graded to specification prior to the crew’s arrival. Using a sod installation machine and forklift, large turf rolls are loaded onto the front of the machine. The operator moves the installer forward to roll out the turf. The seams are pulled tight on the sod and a pavement roller moves across the filed to flatten the grass.

Although that sounds pretty straight forward, Murphy’s Law seems to apply to every industry and technique. Sandhill was challenged last fall when long-time client FedEx Field needed a quick makeover. An October U2 concert resulted in sod damage from the stage brought in for the event. With the Redskins’ next home game just two weeks away, the pressure was on to bring the surface back to pro football standards.

“The site is an eight-hour drive from our farm, so cutting and shipping the sod and laying it in a timely manner was challenging, “ Harris says. “We had to get lots of trucks and efficient crews.”

Because the turf would see play time in the near future, Sandhill cut it thicker than usual, close to 2 inches thick in this case, to ensure that it was heavy enough to lay easily and remain immobile. The company, which uses both its own trucks and contractors, loaded up 33 vehicles in 36 hours. In four days’ time, the old sod was removed, the field regraded and new grass was installed.

“It worked out great, “ Harris says. “The Redskins played there 10 days after we finished. “ He adds that while venues such as FedEx Field redo their turf annually, most colleges wait five to seven years between makeovers.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.