An overview of the sod industry in the U.S. is a snapshot of a dynamic, flexible group of producers and end users who aren’t waiting for the economy to awaken from the dead.
Kirk Hunter, executive director of Turfgrass Producers International, says the economy has definitely had an effect on sales, since about half of the nation’s sod goes into the landscaping of private residences, and there has been a leveling off of the number of producers, with TPI membership at about 900 currently. There is still a lot of sod being sold, however, with the market focusing more on sports turf and uses other than new home installations.
“Many turfgrass producers have reduced their number of acres dedicated to sod, and farms that once produced other crops may have returned to those alternatives during this period of reduced demand for sod. There are, however, many large turfgrass operations,” Hunter says. Because of increased automation in harvesting and other efficiencies, more sod can be produced by fewer growers.
With reduced supply, prices are holding up “pretty well,” and some sod growers are doing well, but Hunter says that often there isn’t a lot of margin in sod. TPI is trying to keep market share up by injecting a dose of reality in the current debate over turf reduction measures. Many attempts at regulating or legislating turf reduction are either not relying on science or are ignoring the good qualities of grass and what it adds to a landscape, he says.
TPI is working with other organizations to teach regulators that grass, when the right type is planted in the right place and watered efficiently, is an effective ground cover with a lot of benefits.
“There’s a lot of legislation right now that would have an effect on lawns and homeowners,” Hunter says, but it takes a concerted effort to point out benefits to legislators and regulators. For example, in working with the Environmental Protection Agency on its new WaterSense guidelines program, TPI hopes to get the agency to consider the many positive economic and environmental aspects of grass. For example, there is a push to get sod recognized as an erosion control device, but grass can also reduce urban heat island effects and control noise.
Kevin Morris, executive director of the National Turfgrass Federation (NTF) and the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP), says that legislative and regulatory activities have also unexpectedly taken up a lot of his time in the past year. The industry is concerned about the tendency of agencies and municipalities to regulate grass out of existence in drought-prone areas.
“Part of what we’re doing is responding to those concerns,” Morris says. NTF is one of many green industry associations-ranging from PLANET to the Irrigation Association and the U.S. Golf Association, and including TPI-trying to get agencies to look at landscaping as a positive, even in the face of water shortages. Turfgrass is one of the top five crops grown in this country, and NTF has been instrumental in getting USDA-Agricultural Research Service to allocate specialty crop funding to turfgrass issues (federal money is now funding related research at centers in Maryland, West Virginia and Utah). He has also worked with Hunter on the EPA WaterSense program, successfully getting the agency to see that water conservation through turf reduction shouldn’t be a simple issue of removal.
“We were able to have a good impact on the Water Sense issue,” Morris says. Still in development, the guidelines will reflect that some grasses actually thrive under low-water conditions, and it is often improper watering practices that lead to overusage of water. EPA program developers were open to the idea that types of grasses could be listed, with drought-tolerant species being suitable for arid climates. “They’re actually interested in having Water Sense turfgrasses.”
In the future, Morris says legislative and regulatory issues will likely take up much of his time, but in his association with the national turfgrass evaluations, he also is seeing changes that tie into those larger issues. For example, more focus is being placed on developing and testing drought-tolerant species that will be used in the production of sod and seed. Salt tolerance is another major focus, since so much of the nation’s irrigation water has high salinity. Both grass breeders and consumers are looking for new species and varieties that will fit into those categories.
For that reason, NTEP had a drought tolerance trial last fall, which looked at that trait more specifically than in the past. Morris says this will be a trend in the future, and more variety evaluations will have a drought or salt tolerance component to highlight data for those grasses that hold promise. Another element to be looked at in the future is grasses that can tolerate high traffic and do so with low maintenance, which could address the national debate about grass being a high-input landscape component.
Some relatively obscure grass species such as zoysiagrass and seashore paspalum are showing increased utility in the industry and finding space in national variety trials. Morris says this is a good trend, especially as they are gaining traction in commercial usage. These grasses can be used along with other drought or salt-tolerant species to convince agencies and homeowners of the options that can be used-even in dry climates in the Southwest.
Morris also points out that other newly bred or discovered grasses are being investigated as candidates for ornamental use. An example is a native saltgrass in the genus Distichilis, which is being studied for its tolerance to heat and salt, but there are others as well. He feels that evaluations of such species could be important as issues such as carbon sequestration, including the use of turfgrasses in a cap-and-trade context, become more prominent in the future. These can be used in valid arguments when the subject of turf removal comes up.
In addition, Morris says, scientists involved with NTEP are starting to use new evaluation methods to measure heat tolerance. One is the use of digital cameras and special lighting boxes to look at plant color and disease more objectively than the human eye can, which can be important when evaluating, say, the degree of decline in greenness as drought-tolerant species are tested under reduced irrigation.
Turfgrass breeders, both in private seed companies and at universities such as Rutgers, are also focusing more on special characteristics such as drought tolerance. Morris says this is a good trend, but notes that good varieties have been developed in the past, but not used commercially because of issues such as poor seed production.
“There are breeders out there coming up with new varieties,” Hunter agrees, adding that there are also some interesting tests on the horizon involving some of the issues surrounding the use or development of turfgrass. One is the study of biosolids in turfgrass fertility, and another is the promising field of DNA mapping of grasses. This could lead to breakthroughs in variety selection, since different traits could be located and isolated more precisely.
“One variety of Kentucky bluegrass can be five times more water efficient than another,” Hunter points out, and DNA mapping may be able to isolate the genes that make one variety more water efficient or salt tolerant than another. He knows of several turfgrass scientists who are submitting proposals to the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative for DNA research.
Another good development, Hunter says, is that some states are being given federal money for the marketing of specialty crops. Those block grants can be obtained through each state’s department of agriculture to be used to promote the use of sod. Several state turfgrass associations, such as those in North Carolina and Texas, have already had success with this program.
As far as sod equipment goes, Gerry Brouwer says that the slow economy has depressed sales industrywide to some degree, but it has not curbed research and development. There is a tremendous push toward automation in all aspects of the sod industry, and he should know. He started Brouwer Turf Equipment in 1972 and has been involved in many innovations since then. He is currently owner of Kesmac-Brouwer in Keswick, Ont., Canada.
“The whole industry has changed to automation,” Brouwer says. Even during the downturn, automatic sod harvester sales are the bright spot in North America. Kesmac-Brouwer and Trebro Manufacturing are the leaders in that area, and both are innovative companies that continue to come up with new technology.
When Brouwer developed the first automatic big-roll sod harvester in 1989, he foresaw that mechanical installation would be the next step. That has proven to be insightful, as big-roll installers are now becoming common, especially on large turfgrass facilities. Big-roll installers, from three-point hitch to self-propelled types, are now available from three different companies.
Brouwer says that about 20 percent of the sod installed in North America is now done in big rolls, with the rest in small rolls and slabs. Automation is continually being initiated from harvest to installation. Stacking on harvesters is now automated on many machines, for both rolls and slabs. Now that automatic harvesters are predominant, the trend with manufacturers is to give the single operator more options that will make his job more efficient. Those include automatic steering and the ability to vary pallet size on the rig.
Another innovation quickly spreading through the industry is netting for sod growing, particularly in the warmer regions. Brouwer says a lot of sod is being grown on netting now, which makes for a shorter growing season and also allows the ability to harvest sod that is less strong, making it easier for harvesting and installation automation to be developed, especially for big rolls.
Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.