A solution for maintenance headaches

For Pacific Sod, the window of opportunity doesn’t stay open for long. After harvesting turf at one of its six growing farms, the California company has about 24 hours to deliver it and get it into the ground. If they miss that window, the company runs the risk of having the load die out and facing a disappointed customer.

“We are dealing with a perishable product,” says Tony Prater, senior executive vice president of logistics at the Camarillo, Calif., company, which is one of the five biggest turf providers in the state. “If we have that load sitting on the side of the road because of a breakdown, we have only a few hours to get up and running, or we run into real problems.”

Tony Prater of Pacific Sod says leasing trucks through PacLease allows the company to focus on providing turf to its residential and commercial customers.

Pacific Sod, which is the largest division of holding company Pacific Earth Resources, has enough on its hands growing its products and marketing to its customers in California. It doesn’t want to worry about keeping its truck fleet maintained and operating. That’s why for most of the past 20 years, the company has leased its trucks.

“When we owned our tractors and did our own maintenance, it became clear over time that we didn’t have the repair facilities or the trained personnel to keep up with the servicing demands,” says Prater. “We opted out of maintenance and into full-service leasing, which also covers roadside servicing.”

Pacific Sod now operates a leased fleet of 38 tractors pulling 42-foot trailers and eight straight trucks with 24-foot beds. All but two of the trucks are Peterbilt model 385s leased through PACCAR Leasing (PacLease). A combination of the right leasing terms and mobile servicing makes the seven-year leasing deal work for Pacific Sod.

PacLease, through franchises Rush PacLease in Southern California and Pape Truck Leasing in Northern California, performs preventive maintenance and minor repairs at Pacific Sod sites. PacLease schedules the servicing to fit around the availability of the trucks, which make deliveries Tuesday through Saturday.

“If we had to take them in to a shop for servicing, it would be a costly headache,” Prater says. “Mobile servicing keeps the trucks up and running.”

Trucks to meet job demands

By leasing through PacLease, Pacific Sod is able to custom spec trucks that are outfitted to meet its delivery demands. For example, its trucks are equipped with 410 hp engines to pull loads through mountain passes and up steep inclines to remote construction sites. To reduce weight, the company selected the Peterbilt model 385 trucks and specified just one 100-gallon fuel tank. An air-supported suspension and locking differentials on the rear axles provide stability when the trucks make off-road deliveries.

“Saving weight is important not only to meet weight regulations, but also to maximize how much turf we can carry per load,” Prater says.

Pacific Sod averages about five deliveries daily per truck. Its trucks average about 250 miles daily and about 62,000 miles a year. The fleet covered close to 2.5 million miles in 2006.

Pacific Sod drivers are equipped with cell phones and pagers. The trucks are outfitted with GPS-based software for real-time tracking.

An employee loads turf pallets at Pacific Sod’s farm in Camarillo, Calif., one of several farms the company operates in Northern and Southern California.

Pacific Sod’s harvesting schedule is precise. Turf is harvested in the late morning or early afternoon and loaded on trailers and covered with a tarp in the evening. Drivers head out between midnight and 5 a.m. to make their morning deliveries. Pacific Sod also schedules local routes near their farms that deliver turf in the morning and afternoon, according to Prater.

Hitting delivery windows is crucial because a customer’s landscaping crew is often waiting to lay the turf. A missed or delayed delivery means added expense.

“On the distribution end, we provide very quick turnaround,” Prater says. “We can provide delivery with as little as a 20-hour notice.”

Residential business

Pacific Sod’s business is about 60 percent commercial and 40 percent residential, with about 60 percent of the business in Southern California and the remainder in the northern part of the state. Prater predicts a 20 percent decline in residential business in 2007 and 2008 as production home building slows down. “We follow construction indicators very closely,” he says. “Single-family building permits in our markets are off 30 percent in the first six months of 2007 compared with the same period in 2006. Permits are down 50 percent since 2005.”

As a result, Prater predicts an unspecified drop in overall business in 2007 and 2008. This follows revenue growth of 50 percent over the previous seven years.

Pacific Sod started modestly in 1968. The Rogers family, a pioneer ranching and oil-drilling operation in Southern California, set aside 100 acres from an 8,000-acre farming tract to grow sod. One of the first companies to sell sod in the state, Pacific Sod initially delivered turf in pickup trucks to commercial projects. Acquisitions in 1982 and 1988 helped double the size of the company.

Pacific Sod remained a wholesaler only until 1997 when it began selling turf directly to do-it-yourselfers installing their own lawns. Over time, the company’s farms expanded to the current 2,000 acres.

The company grows 10 different varieties of turf, including fescue types, bermudagrasses and fescue blends that require little mowing. Seven of the varieties are suitable for both Northern and Southern California, while the other three varieties are specialty items for the drier, hotter southern part of California.

Tall fescue and dwarf fescue blends are Pacific Sod’s best sellers, accounting for more than 75 percent of sales. They stay green year-round and are adaptable to most growing conditions throughout California.

Drought and turf demand

These varieties have remained popular even as parts of the state face continuing drought conditions and water supply sources are challenged. Prater says he expects seed breeders will develop varieties that will be more drought-tolerant and disease-resistant. In the meantime, customers continue to call for grasses that remain green year-round.

One of Pacific Sod’s specialty products is a No Mow fine fescue blend that is used on slopes and for bioswale applications for catch basins. The company is also the sole California grower for the Greg Norman GN 1 bermudagrass for golf courses and sport fields.

About five years ago, Pacific Sod began offering “sod kits” to homeowners with a green thumb and on a budget. “The sod kits have been very popular,” Prater says. “They contain all of the ingredients needed to prepare and install new turf. They include soil amendments for conditioning the soil, starter and maintenance fertilizers, a spreader and a sod knife. They have everything but a lawn roller and rototiller.”

Pacific Sod delivers only in California—with one exception. About every two weeks, the company delivers a load of the Garden Carpet soil-less product to the Mirage hotel in nearby Las Vegas for the white tiger enclosure. The turf doesn’t contain turf netting that could snag the felines’ claws and get caught in their throats.

Looking ahead, Prater says the business will move with the direction of the suddenly volatile new housing industry in California, but he’s confident the company will be able to take care of business and meet its windows of opportunity with its dependable delivery system and leased truck fleet. “We have few concerns about our trucks on the road thanks to PacLease,” he says. “Their support lets us breathe easy when it comes to the distribution of our products; it allows us to focus on producing world-class turf.”

Paul Alexander is a Seattle-area freelance writer/editor who specializes in transportation.