Continued success at Iowa family sod farm

Seven Cities Sod is a family-operated sod company. From left, Lance Frye, his brother-in-law Jack Armstrong, Jack’s son Easton and Lance’s son Keaton.
Photos courtesy of Seven Cities Sod.

Seven Cities Sod in Davenport, Iowa, serves the Quad Cities region of Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island in Illinois, along with three other towns from which the name Seven Cities was originally taken. The company delivers sod within about a 150-mile radius in southeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois.

Seven Cities grows about 700 acres of Kentucky bluegrass sod on the family farm established in 1856. Fifth-generation owner Lance Frye was joined in the farm operation by his brother-in-law Jack Armstrong about 30 years ago. Seven Cities was started by Norman Frye in 1967 when he planted 30 acres of sod followed by 60 acres the next year, converting primarily to sod in a short time. About half of the farm lies within the city limits of Davenport with the other half in the county.

Family participation in the farm operations appears assured with a sixth generation now involved in the farm operation. Frye’s son, Keaton, is a senior business major at the University of Dubuque, and he is expected to join the business full time upon graduation. Frye’s daughter Jill Oostendorp is Seven Cities’ office manager, and Armstrong’s son Easton currently manages an erosion control sales segment of the company.

The forward-looking Seven Cities was the first sod farm in Iowa to offer big rolls, which it also installs. The company focuses on providing excellent sod and dedicated service to assure continued success.

“We’ve been down 10 to 15 percent the past two years, but that’s been mostly due to weather,” Frye said. “Our housing development has not fallen off as much. We’re in mostly a blue-collar area where employment has been stable.”

Seven Cities installs about 30 to 40 percent of its own sod and installs all its big rolls. A Magnum Cyrus sod harvester is used for big rolls, and small rolls are harvested with a Princeton harvester for wholesale to landscapers. Pallets are cut for the retail market, which represents about 10 percent of the business.

Frye said that at one time sod was regrown after harvest, but for a number of years, it has been replanted following harvest. “We use fresh-seeding because it matures more quickly and gives a better product,” Frye said. Seed is obtained from United Seeds in Des Moines, Iowa.

“We do a little double-cropping with early soybeans,” Frye said. With about 2 feet of topsoil, the Muscatine silt loam provides an efficient growing medium. “We do normal soil testing,” Frye said. “Nitrogen and phosphorus are added based on soil testing results.” Seven Cities maintains its own semis and contracts for additional hauling as needed. John Deere EZ Flow equipment is used; the primary John Deere dealer is in DeWitt, Iowa.

Seven Cities has a long history of providing sod for major projects throughout the region. Some major projects in Iowa have included the Field of Dreams ball diamond in Dyersville, NASCAR Speedway in Newton, University of Iowa Athletic Fields. A major project in Illinois was Jumer’s Casino in Rock Island. A number of high school athletic fields, as well as commercial business establishment projects, are among regular projects the company tackles. Most of the residential work completed by landscapers is in new construction, while homeowners purchase the sod pallets at retail outlets for upgrades or replacement projects.

Challenges

While water conservation is a major challenge throughout much of the sod industry, ample rainfall is normally received in eastern Iowa. Frye said that water conservation is not currently a major issue in the Midwest, but may become so in time. He said that some years too much rainfall is received and other years too little, and Seven Cities maintains its irrigation system to irrigate 400 acres when needed.

Weather-related issues in recent years have been due to too much rain, rather than not enough. The rains that created flooding throughout much of Iowa have also prevented or delayed both new and replacement sod projects. Seven Cities uses Schulte batwing 15-foot mowers to mow the sod. “We use the Schulte batwing and have made several adaptions,” Frye said. “Mowing 700 acres is hard with the amount of rain we have had.”

Lance Frye adjusts sod cutting while Jack Armstrong drives.

Frye cited breeding grasses resistant to various diseases as a challenge to the sod industry. While the region served by Seven Cities doesn’t have major disease issues, summer patch can be a concern and is treated as needed. The company relies on NTEP results for most sod varieties, and doesn’t change blends often. “When you have a good blend for your area, you don’t change it often,” Frye said.

The company does do some Yellow Page advertising, but marketing isn’t a major focus, and instead Seven Cities relies more on referrals and regular customers. “We’ve been around a long time, and a lot of our business is repeat business from the landscapers who know us,” Frye said. “We talk to a lot of our customers on a daily basis.”

He emphasized that treating customers well is a key element and that developing good customers relations helps assure loyalty in customers.

In addition to recognition of its turf, Seven Cities is known throughout the region for its model airplane site. “We have about 2 acres with a hard surface runway for model airplane operators,” he said. Model airplane enthusiasts from throughout the region come to Seven Cities to fly their planes.

Frye noted that the Seven Cities has a unique sign on Interstate 80 that people all across the country traveling I-80 have observed. “We have 4-foot-tall white concrete letters that we’ve had for about 35 years. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve met someone who has seen those signs and knows where we are located,” he said.

Seven Cities is a member of TPI and of the Iowa Turfgrass Institute.

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.