Lehigh Valley Turfgrass
At Lehigh Valley Turfgrass in Center Valley, Pa., Justin Kovecses makes a world of sense when he explains how he learned the turf business from the ground up, and from the best, his grandfather, David Miller.
When Miller, who had almost 40 years invested in the sod farm, passed away in February, and a foreman that had been with the company for 25 years left two months later, it left the 20-year-old grandson with quite an indoctrination, especially considering the summer drought in the Northeast.
“If we’ve survived this year, we can survive any year,” says Kovecses, the business manager, though his grandmother, Mimi Miller, is still the boss. “Even now, I’m a lot more comfortable and have a better grip on things.”
The drought was nearly devastating, but Kovecses’ understanding of the irrigation system saved the sod farm. “Without it, we would have been shut down months ago,” he says. “We just had to keep the turf moist, but that equipment hadn’t come out of that corner in the barn for at least six years.”
Drawing from two man-made dams on either side of the property, the pump at the back of a John Deere tractor produced about 200 pounds of water a minute through a reel dispenser and hose that covered 1,500 feet.
It’s an example of how the sod farm is Kovecses’ interest, and where he wants to invest his energy. “I like the industry and the people in it,” he says. “I guess I just like nature.”
Miller, who died at age 82, purchased the property while he was closing out his career as golf superintendent at nearby Saucon Valley Country Club. When the farm went up for sale, knowing he had mineral-rich soil in Lehigh County, he was smart enough to buy the land, and then turn the turf business into his retirement hobby.
Now, 98 percent of the landscapers in the Lehigh Valley—the Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton areas—plus the region’s golf courses, university and townships are customers, as well as plenty of homeowners. Locally, the next two nearest sod farms are two hours away in New Jersey and one hour south in Pennsylvania. “My grandfather started this business because there was no competition,” Kovecses says.
“Since this has always been a family business, it helps,” Kovecses says of the transition. “Plus, it’s not like I’m just some guy, nor was I ever working for just some guy. I worked for my grandfather, and everything I learned, I learned from the ground up.”
He grew up two houses down from the farm and was later raised by his mother in the farmhouse on the business property. “I didn’t go far,” Kovecses says. “Right out of high school, I was working here and getting as much experience as I could from my grandfather.”
Now, he’s planning on coursework at Penn State, or other online opportunities, while still helping to run the business. It helps that things slow down in the winter, though he’s already taken a couple of courses at Rutgers University in residential and commercial irrigation.
In the beginning, Kovecses started out picking rocks and then push mowing. Then, he took to the machinery to mow, and before long was stacking sod. These days, he’s driving the sod cutter when he’s not manning the office.
Including himself, there are four workers, most seasonal, and he can fill in anywhere as needed, during spring fertilizing and seed preparation, or wherever. He knows how important customer service can be, too.
As for his grandmother, Mimi, “This keeps her going,” Kovecses says. “She likes doing it, and she’s done it for so long. She likes to wake up and to be in the office by 7:30 a.m. It’s part of her life.”
On the farm
Lehigh Valley Turfgrass has some 150 acres in cultivation, and another 50 acres in woods and living and business space. “It sounds big, but it’s really not,” says Kovecses, who also installs turfgrass. He has a good, reliable turf supplier, too, but maintains that the business is his first priority.
“We cut as we go,” he says. “We cut a certain amount each morning, and there’s always a palette for homeowners as needed in front of the office. We always hope to be out of that palette by the end of each day.”
Once strips of turf have been cut, there’s disc preparation, subsoil work, cultivation, raking with rock rakes and a Harley rock picker and then planting.
Turf is a five bluegrasses blend. Limed, fertilized and mowed, it is ready for sale in one and a half years. Each piece is 16 by 45 inches, or about 5 square feet.
This fall, there was also an experimental 3-acre plot. Kovecses was trying a new seed brand, Black Beauty from Jonathan Green Lawn and Garden Products in New Jersey, and he planted 200 to 300 pounds of the seed per acre.
“They kept coming down here to try to sell us, so we figured we’d give it a try,” he says.
Each day, the crew gets orders cut first, and then cuts a little stock for homeowner purchases. The rest of the day is spent in maintenance, cleanup and equipment repair, “but obviously the big thing is mowing,” Kovecses says.
The farm’s equipment includes John Deere 4440 and 4020 tractors; two Case forklifts to move cut sod; a Kubota to pull the sod harvester; four Ford tractors; a John Deere bulldozer and backhoe; three delivery trucks, each with a hitchhiker; and a forklift attachment for use on site to move sod.
Kovecses says it’s a small business, but a good size business for a family. Somehow, despite the changes this year, and the challenges, he’s kept the business going, mostly by keeping everything cycling and in rhythm.
Selling sod by the square foot, in this economy, Kovecses says, required week-to-week analysis, rather than year-to-year. “We’re not worried about going out of business,” he says. “It’s just a matter of how much business we have. We had some great weeks and some horrible ones.”
The family business
While Kovecses isn’t the only grandchild (there are five other cousins), he’s the only one with an interest. The Millers have two daughters and a son, but among them no real interest in the business so much as the land, a natural inclination.
“My grandfather never said too much [about the future],” Kovecses says. “It could have shut down when he died, but this is my point of interest. I enjoy doing this. I enjoy the industry. How many opportunities do you have when one family can work together? The business was here. We have a customer list. Why wouldn’t we all want to help keep it going? My grandfather worked hard at this, so if we don’t keep it going, it’s all a waste, especially to throw it all away and make it houses. Why would you do that?”
He says that he does feel the pressure every day. “I’m just trying my best to make it work. It’s my responsibility, and it can be overwhelming. My grandma knows why I’m here and what I’m trying to do. The tradition is very important. I’m not here for the money, so for me, this is worth it, to see how this all plays out.”
The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.