Fourth-generation farmer has continued success producing sod

One of Oleson Sod Company’s sod fields is mowed with a Progressive 36-foot mower.
Photos courtesy of Oleson Sod.

Although shielded to a significant degree from the downturned economy, Oleson Sod Company is looking toward increasing its profit margin. Located just 3 miles outside Cedar Falls, Iowa, the company has produced sod since 1969 when Cliff Oleson decided to diversify his traditional farming operation, adding sod to his list of products.

With an eye toward increasing their profit margin, Oleson’s son Jack is focusing on shortening the production time to one year from the current two-year time frame. He is the fourth generation on the farm in northeastern Iowa settled by the Olesons in 1876. Careful decisions and attention to producing quality sod have assured continued success in the sod business. Also, sod is cut from new seeding each time with no second cuts made. “We have to get it down to one year to remain profitable,” Oleson said. With a one-year sod production time frame, a soybean crop can be grown on the fields in the alternate year, which will increase farm revenue.

Steve Ubben, Josh Ubben and Jack Oleson discuss this year’s sod quality.

Oleson has had experience figuring out profitability issues on the family farm established in 1876. He operated a sod installation business for three years before incorporating it into the sod production company in 1976. In 2000, a major sod firm in the area went up for sale. “Eckerman’s was the number one sodding company in the area, and they represented about 35 percent of our business,” Oleson said. Oleson Sod Company purchased the business.

The majority of the company’s sod sales are to landscapers. While competition with their customers was a concern, the Olesons let their customers know ahead of time that they would only be installing sod until sufficient expansion of sod sales allowed them to drop the installation division. “And, that’s exactly what we did,” Oleson said. “We installed sod from 2000 to 2005, then phased it out to avoid competing with our customers.”

Oleson uses John Deere equipment. His local equipment dealers are Waterloo Implement Co. in Waterloo and Phelps Equipment in Grundy Center. He said, “One of our best and most-used machines is our John Deere 482C forklift.” Mowing of the sod fiels is done with a 36-foot Progressive mower at a height of 2.5 to 3 inches. Oleson’s wife Deb also works in the business, and Cliff, 88, continues to work on the farm every day, as well as long-term employees Steve Ubben and his son Josh.

Northeastern Iowa’s sound economy, hard winters

The state of Iowa, in general, has been spared of some of the economic issues affecting many other states. “Our county is doing quite well,” Oleson said. Cedar Falls is adjacent to Waterloo, which is home to John Deere tractor manufacturing, so a strong economy remains in place buoyed by an industrial park and incentives to business development. As new residents come to the area, the housing required helps the sod market continue to stay strong. In addition, replacement sod after major area tornado damage also contributed to the need for sod, with about 200 homes as well as athletic fields receiving damage last year.

While the area offers a stable economy, the winters are stable only in that they are consistently severe. The early arrival of winter weather represents one of Oleson’s most significant challenges in growing sod. “Just getting the seed started can be a challenge,” Oleson said. Although ample water is available, both in rainfall and a strong aquifer, rain doesn’t always come at the right time, which can put the crop several weeks behind. Irrigation is necessary to ensure moisture for germination, and Oleson uses both wheel line and traveling water guns. “We’re looking into some new center pivot irrigation in Nebraska,” he said. “It’s supposed to be able to water without getting too much on the field.”

While Oleson Sod has tried blending ryegrass and turfgrass with the bluegrass, only pure bluegrass is grown. Oleson said, “We tried mixing perennial rye with our bluegrass for quicker germination and increased disease resistance. We saw test plots at Iowa State University and they looked great. We used Manhattan 2 perennial rye, but then Manhattan 2 wasn’t available. We used another variety, and the homeowners could tell the difference in color. We tried mixing tall fescue with our bluegrass for increased shade tolerance, but Iowa has severe winters. With early thaws followed by freezes, that didn’t work out.” He noted that with ideal watering and fertilization, the ryegrass would have done well, but on home lawns, fertilization and watering may be sporadic, and that mix didn’t work.

Elite seed to grow the sod is obtained from Summit Seed and United Seed. “We look at NTEP trials at Iowa State University, but we mostly depend on recommendations from our seed suppliers,” said Oleson.

Oleson Sod Company has carried the Versa-Lock retaining wall system for a number of years.

He estimates his current sales to be about 84 percent to landscapers, 10 percent to contractors and homebuilders and 10 percent retail. The Oleson Sod Company maintains its own delivery trucks and delivers sod within about a 60-mile radius. While diversification has not been a focus for Oleson Sod, the company has carried the Versa-Lok segmented retaining wall system since 1993. Versa-Lok is headquartered in Oak Dale, Minn.

Technology makes major impacts

In addition to Eckerman’s business representing about 35 percent of Oleson’s sales, the company installed big rolls almost exclusively. “At that time, about 49 percent of our business was in big rolls sales,” Oleson said. With the purchase of Eckerman’s business, and eventual phasing-out of sod installation, Oleson Sod Company sales evolved to a larger percent of small rolls. Oleson uses a Brouwer Roll Max sod harvester for the big rolls and a Trebro HarveStack for the small rolls.

The Trebro HarveStack has significantly changed sod production, with features that allow one person to start early harvesting.

Oleson is a strong proponent of the Trebro, and noted it represented a major change in sod harvesting. “It has auto steer and drops rolls off the side so you don’t have to have someone picking the rolls up right away. “It allows one person to go out and cut for a couple of hours alone,” he said.

He noted that sod harvesters have been a major factor in changing sod production. “Going from a Ryan sodcutter to the Brouwer machine made a huge difference in business. The next big change was the Trebro with its auto stacking.”

Oleson believes that marketing and pricing are weaknesses within the sod industry. He sees the retail market to homeowners as a strong potential market for sod. “We have the advantage of being just 3 miles from Cedar Falls, so people can drive to our farm and see what we do here with the turf,” he said. Because Oleson has been established in a stable community for an extended time, advertising has never been a major consideration. As a member of Turf Producers International since 1977, he often attends conferences, although Iowa does not have a state chapter. “We’ve tried to get a state organization going, but just haven’t been able to,” he said.

“We were at a TPI winter conference, and they were really stressing Web sites,” he noted. “We have a common name, but it can be spelled a number of ways, so when we were choosing a Web site name we wanted to be sure people could find us. I chose for Cedar Falls. We were absolutely amazed at the number of people who came through our door in response to that Web site. I would really stress to sod growers the importance of communication through Web sites.”

He noted that sod producers sometimes need to look for markets to offer their sod to. For example, Oleson checks city building permits to see where new subdivisions or other building projects are being developed. “All those homes or other buildings will have to either seed or sod,” he said. He noted that knowing the market and where advertising should be directed is important for effective advertising.

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.