Sod grower offers grass year-round

Under the Alabama sun, turf grown on 700 acres of rich soil and river bottom land is carefully tended by Paul Salzmann, owner of Salzmann Turf Farms (alabama-grass.com), and his employees. Starting with just 5 acres 30 years ago, Salzmann Turf Farms has supplied turf year-round for athletic fields, landscapers, contractors and homeowners from its two Alabama locations: one in Elberta and the other in Montgomery.

Paul Salzmann started with just 5 acres of sod 30 years ago. Today, Salzmann Turf Farms supplies turf year-round for athletic fields, landscapers, contractors and homeowners.
Photos courtesy of Salzmann Turf Farms.

Clients are situated along the Gulf Coast in a 350-mile radius encompassing Alabama, Florida’s Panhandle region, Mississippi and Louisiana. To do work for athletic fields, the company will travel just about anywhere. In fact, one of its biggest clients is the Tennessee Titans NFL team.

Clients for resodding projects also include college and high school soccer and baseball fields in the southern United States. Salzmann Turf Farm delivers to customer job sites or homes, and the company also sells directly from the farm for homeowners, landscapers and contractors who would rather have that option.

The company grows several grass varieties that are common favorites in the South, including centipedegrass, bermudagrass and St. Augustine, as well as El Toro and Emerald zoysiagrass. Centipede, commonly used in many places throughout the South, except in south Florida, adapts to sandy, acidic soils with low fertility and requires low maintenance. Its roots do not grow as deep as bermudagrass, but because of that it is chosen for its water conservation properties. St. Augustinegrass is one of the oldest coastal grasses and has been commonly favored in the South, including south Florida, and grows from the Carolinas to the Texas Gulf Coast and from mid-California down. It also is used inland for groundcover and pastures. The thick-bladed grass requires full to moderate shade and adapts to moist, semi-fertile soils, high temperatures, coastal and bordering areas, sun and minimal shade.

The company grows grass twice a year. Tifway 419 is grown in June and is coveted for its shade and heat tolerance properties, as well as its dormancy factors, drought tolerance when it is well-established and its high wear resistance and recovery factors. During the second season, which is wrapped up by the end of November, Salzmann sends sod out to its customers that is grown on a plastic base and is ready for athletic play.

Salzmann says the company’s goal is to never have the sod around the company’s acreage too long.

“As soon as the grass is ready, we usually have a home for every piece we grow,” Salzmann says.

Like other companies in the industry, Salzmann Turf Farms has had its share of challenges as a result of the recession and has adjusted business practices accordingly. The staff has been trimmed down to six employees, and production has been cut by 30 percent. Salzmann also looked for other ways to generate income.

He has filled the empty production space by planting row crops of soybeans and wheat and is rotating them. One-third of the company’s land is now dedicated to row crops and two-thirds to sod production. The row crops are sold to grain elevators.

“With this economy, things were really slow, so we had to do it,” Salzmann says. “It’s also really good for the turf. We’re rotating it with our grass. Every three years we’re going to try to plant a row crop behind it. That makes a better end product.”

Such business management techniques have helped Salzmann’s business thrive through three decades. Most of his clients come through word-of-mouth, telephone book advertising and a Web site. Still, the business faces many challenges. The housing market has nearly dried up and taken residential customers with it, and competition for the remaining market share is stiff.

“A lot of people have dropped the price of grass,” Salzmann points out. “We are selling grass right now for the same price or cheaper than what we were selling it for in 1980.”

With it being a given that most companies are trying to survive by selling on price, Salzmann takes his company’s efforts a step beyond that by promoting his company’s product quality and service. Those are the factors that separate his company from the rest of the pack, he says. Salzmann is confident that his first sale to a customer will not be the last. When the time comes to do a resodding job for that client, they will return to Salzmann Turf Farms to do that job based on the quality of the turf and the top-notch service that was entailed in the previous sod order. That comes down to the integrity of the people he has working the trucks for him, Salzmann says. “They must be polite and always remember that the customer is always right,” he says.

Two-thirds of Salzmann Turf Farms’ lands is dedicated to sod production and the other one-third to row crops. When demand went down due to the economy, Paul Salzmann filled his empty production space with row crops, such as soybeans and wheat, to generate extra income.

While many areas of the country struggle with water efficiency issues due to water shortages and droughts, Salzmann says not only does his region not have water restrictions, but in the past year the company’s challenge has been dealing with too much water through ongoing rain events. One of the consequences is root rot in the centipedegrass.

The rain also causes a problem for clients looking to get a field sodded. “The customers cannot do the preparation work necessary to get the site ready because of the rain,” Salzmann says. “Finally, they get the site ready and it rains on us, and so it takes another day to dry out before we can ship out the grass. It the meantime, it rains again. That’s the way our whole winter has been.”

Salzmann views the recession as a period of time in which companies that are not strong will be weeded out. “In our area, more than 50 percent of the sod is coming out of production,” he says. “The larger growers have cut back at least 50 percent because the market it not there, and a lot of the small growers are quitting.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.