Father and son sod growers

Photos Courtesy of Payne Sod Farm.
An early morning start assures quick turnaround on orders.

Payne Sod Farm, Manteno, Ill., focuses on providing excellent bluegrass sod and excellent customer service. “We strive for excellent quality and we go the extra mile to provide service,” said Justin Payne. Justin and his father Ron own and operate the sod farm located about 40 miles south of Chicago. Payne Sod Farm primarily sells sod to landscape contractors within a 50-mile radius, which includes Chicago’s continued expansion to the south and much of northeastern Indiana.

Despite its strong industrial base, Illinois has traditionally remained an agriculturally focused state where black loam soil provides an excellent growing environment and giant agribusinesses are major economic contributors. While agricultural interests are still a major force in northeastern Illinois, they are gradually giving way to development as Chicagoland sprawl continues to gobble up farmland in all directions. Manteno is just a short drive up Interstate 57 from Urbana-Champaign, home to the University of Illinois, a major provider of technology that is implemented into agriculture. Spillover benefits from row crop research in such areas as precision agriculture gradually make their way to turfgrass producers, and technology is becoming increasingly more important.

Payne Sod Farm is one of many sod producers across the country linking one-on-one customer service with the latest technology in producing sod that has supported rapidly expanding development. Development in Chicagoland and other areas only recently saw a slowdown as the economic recession became a major factor throughout the country.

Father-son business

Ron started working with turfgrass in end user positions more than three decades ago. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Ron worked at golf courses and served as a golf course superintendent before entering the landscaping business. He planted his first turfgrass crop in 1978, harvesting it with a Ryan walk-behind hand cutter. He has continued to grow turfgrass, expanding the business and adding tractor-mounted turf cutters.

Justin grew up with sod production, and his first real test in the sod business was when he planted 4 acres of turfgrass as a high school FFA project. He started with a crop loan and followed the crop through growing, harvesting and sales. He joined his father full time in turf production in 2000, and today father and son are business partners. The sod operation has grown from 6 acres in 1978 to about 400 acres today on average, on a combination of owned and leased land.

“We’re planting some row crops this year,” Justin said. Illinois has been hard hit with the economic recession, and while development hasn’t come to a standstill, sod growers and others in the green industry are definitely feeling the impact. A number of development projects that include residential and business, as well as park and school projects have been put on hold. Justin emphasized that Payne Sod Farm will resume planting only turfgrass once the economy picks up and a stronger market resumes.

About 80 percent of the sod is sold through the wholesale market, primarily to landscape contractors. Sod is sold in standard rolls of 10 square feet of 24 by 60 inches and represents the majority of sales. Big rolls of 25 square feet, 30 inches wide by 100 inches long, are sold to a few customers. All sod is cut to order and about 70 percent is delivered via Payne Sod Farm’s fleet. Mowing begins around mid-April, and the turfgrass is mowed between 1.75 and 2 inches as needed throughout the season.

Ron and Justin Payne discuss the day’ssod orders.

Integrating technology

Payne Sod Farm grows 3-D sod from custom-blended bluegrass seed from Summit Seeds in Manteno, Ill. Planting is done with a Land Pride pull-behind planter. “We work with the suppliers on the newest varieties for color, disease resistance and the ability to repair itself well,” Ron said. The turfgrass industry continues to benefit from research into these significant characteristics as selective breeding and technically monitored trials identify the best of the best in seeds. Fertilizers, weed control and equipment have all contributed to more efficiency on sod farms during recent decades.  

“We bought a Trebro AutoStack harvester in 2003,” Justin said. “That has made our sod production less labor-intensive. With it, fewer people are needed for production. We have little scrap with the Trebro, and the pallets are uniform. We can assure consistency in the pallets.”

Justin noted that GPS technology is a major contributor to efficiency in their production operations. He said, “We use two systems, a John Deere Apex 2600 in tracking our fields and tillage, planting and mowing, and the Raven Cruizer in spraying weed control products and applying fertilizer. Our field mapping using the GPS systems helps us to be more efficient and provides a cost savings.”  

Payne Sod Farm obtains its fertilizers and weed control products from Heritage FS, Bourbonnais, Ill. Soil testing is also done through Heritage FS.

Weather remains a major challenge in all agricultural operations. Spring 2009 has been an unusually wet spring, often delaying landscape work and sod cutting in the region. Summer drought is a major issue in turfgrass production, and regular irrigation is essential. On-site wells provide the water source for irrigation delivered by side roll Wade Rain irrigation units. Few disease problems occur on the sod fields. “We scout for any disease and for needed grub control,” Justin said. Treatment for disease or grubs is used only if symptoms occur.

While Payne Sod Farm has traditionally sold its sod by word-of-mouth with no real marketing focus, increased attention is being given to marketing. Their logo and Web site ( have recently been redesigned. “Justin is slowly converting me,” Ron said of an increased interest in marketing.

The Trebro AutoStack is a major contributor to efficient sod farm operations. Pallets are loaded onto the Payne Sod Farm truck for delivery.
Big rolls of sod are cut at Payne Sod Farm.

Reaching out

Justin is president of Sod Growers Association of Mid-America. “My goal is to obtain unity among growers, to push for more research and to increase networking among growers,” he said. While the association has traditionally been focused on research, it is becoming more important in networking and marketing. Promoting the benefits of sod is one of the goals.

While sod is the primary product sold at Payne Sod Farm, associated turfgrass products are also sold, including fertilizer, seed, weed control and equipment. “We work with other sod farms,” Justin said. Progressive rotary pull-behind mowers in 15, 22 and 36-foot widths, primarily used on sod farms, are sold, as well as a full line of Progressive mower replacement parts. Grass seed for lawns, sports fields, golf courses and low-maintenance applications are also carried at the farm.

While the majority of the business is providing turf to landscapers, Payne Sod Farm has installed a high school sports field and is looking toward increasing sports field installations. Four full-time and three part-time workers are employed by the sod farm. “We supplement with family as needed,” Ron said.

Along with the move toward incorporating increasingly more technology into operations, both Ron and Justin emphasized the importance of customer service in their operations. “We strive for quality,” Justin said. “We go the extra mile, doing whatever we have to for every customer, whether it’s opening early or staying late. If they need a delivery the next day, we harvest late, start early, whatever we need to do.”

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.