Diversified markets create a thriving business

Eddie Zuckerman says his company relies on one basic premise: “The customer signs your paycheck.” It’s as simple as that at Delta Bluegrass Company, and it has kept the sod farm thriving through good times and bad.

It takes more than commitment to stay in business and become the biggest sod dealer in northern California. Delta Bluegrass, with headquarters in Stockton, is in its 30th year. Zuckerman, known for his turf growing skills, uses many different marketing pathways to promote his business. It’s especially important in recessionary times.

Rich peat soils in Stockton, Calif., give Delta Bluegrass a light roll, which can be marketed as easy to transport and plant.

Zuckerman has two big advantages that have served him well in the competitive sod industry. First, he’s from a farming family, acquiring agronomic skills from an early age, and he had land awaiting him when he graduated from college. Second, he’s an admitted multitasker who loves to jump from one job to another. He still grows several vegetable and other crops. He farms about 7,000 acres, with sod growing on up to 2,000 acres of that in a separate company.

His sod markets are diversified, and he grows a range of sod varieties for that reason. His focus is on fescues, rye and Kentucky bluegrass for the landscape industry, and although he is north of the recognized zone for warm-season grasses, he grows some hybrid bermuda for the golf course industry. He grows sports turf, and he grows for lawns. He grows some rangy fescues for fringes and margins, and some native grasses for reclamation and highway projects.

One of the fortunate aspects of the farmland he grows sod on in the Stockton/Lodi area is the peat soil. It’s a fluffy, highly organic soil that not only gives him a great crop base for turf, but is also a great marketing tool. Because the peat contains some nutrients—he says it is almost like growing on compost—and is light in weight, he has made it a point to market it as a special feature of most of his sod (the sports turf is grown on sand, the preferred medium in that field).

“It imparts quality to our product that you can’t get anywhere else,” he says, but the nutritional value of the San Joaquin Delta peat and the ability of the sod to interface well with any site give it excellent marketing value. The fact that the soil weighs about half as much as mineral soils is also a marketable feature, because it requires less labor to lay it. It also costs him less money to transport it and enables him to charge a few cents more for his peat sod.

His experience as a farmer has given Zuckerman some special insight on the use of his soils. Although his vegetable and sod operations are separate, they utilize the same ground, so he makes sure he rotates to improve yields as well as reduce disease pressure. For example, by growing a potato crop one year, corn the next and then a couple of years of sod, he is able to keep the soil healthy, as well as low in pathogens. He also shares some heavy tillage equipment between the two operations.

Turf variety selection has become an important part not only of the Delta Bluegrass product offering, but also his marketing campaign. Because he has such a wide client base—from the small landscaper putting in home lawns to the facility manager tending a high-visibility sports complex—Zuckerman grows many varieties and sells many blends and mixes of those varieties.

“They all evolved from customer needs,” he points out. He serves clients from the San Francisco Bay area and northern California/western Nevada, but he also has clients in the Central Valley, which is very hot in the summer, so he sells a lot of bluegrass/fescue mix for the coastal lawns and some hybrid bermuda for the inland golf courses. He has a shade mix of bluegrass, fine fescue and tall fescue that grows well under trees and in cool spots, but he also sells a mow-free mix of different fescues with some native grasses that will grow to 2 feet in height on a highway right of way.

With all of these mixes and blends, as well as a 100 percent ryegrass sod and five different hybrid bermudas, the aim of the company is to meet any need and cultivate a client base from it. Why leave out the warm-season golf course industry, a good source of sales, just because he is located in northern California? He maintains a farm in Bakersfield that grows golf course and sports turf on sand for that clientele, though he doesn’t venture deep into Southern California much because of the travel costs.

He sells mostly sod, but will also sell sprigs if that is requested. He also sells some seed. His newest project is to grow native California grasses in a joint test program with CalTrans and Montana State University. Experimentation is a big part of his rationale, because he is always looking for the next new turfgrass that will make his customers even happier. At any time, a significant effort at the farm will be devoted to turf testing.

Eddie Zuckerman checks sod at Delta Bluegrass with Seed Consultant Jodie Sheffield.

“We hire a full-time seed consultant,” Zuckerman says, and that person is instructed to always be on the lookout for new turf types and varieties that can be inserted into the marketplace. He also personally travels to turf growing and breeding areas, always searching for new prospects. “We take our choosing of varieties very seriously.”

It was on one of his regular trips to the Pacific Northwest seed-growing region that he came upon one of his primary sources of income. He drove by a field of experimental turf that he had never seen before, and he fell in love immediately. It was a fine fescue that was very short in stature, but a dark green, homogeneous and uniform-growing turf that was like nothing he had seen before. He met with the breeder, tested the seed himself and ended up buying the rights to the variety, which he called Bolero.

Bolero became a fescue that now accounts for about half of his company’s sales, and Zuckerman has cultivated the marketing so that it has become Delta Bluegrass’ signature variety. He promotes it heavily, and as a result it has become a popular grass in the Bay area. It isn’t suitable for high-traffic areas, but it makes a good lawn and park turf because it isn’t as prickly as most fescues.

“We put a huge branding effort into it,” Zuckerman says, and the Bolero brand has treated the company very well for almost 10 years now. He promotes it as a relatively low water use, slow-growing turf that doesn’t require rigorous mowing, yet it is suitable for decorative situations because it stays dark green year-round. It is “as pretty as bluegrass,” yet hardy in a variety of climates and temperatures.

Delta Bluegrass spends up to $6,000 for each of its 30 semitrucks to be painted with sod advertising.

Bolero makes a more versatile turf when mixed with bluegrass, so the company produces a mix that they call Bolero Plus that’s 90 percent fescue and 10 percent bluegrass in a mix that has better wear recovery and wintering qualities. Zuckerman has utilized the Bolero brand to create the company’s own turf fertilizer. They ended up with 16-pound bags for consumer use. One is an 8-16-16 Sod and Seed Starter, and the other is a 25-3-6 Lawn Food.

Promotions of Bolero, and the company’s other products, have been given top priority in the company. Zuckerman, whose degree was in business and political science rather than agronomy, pays a lot of attention to marketing. An advertising agency was hired to come up with promotions on printed materials, ads and the company Web site, www.deltabluegrass.com. The Web site itself is a comprehensive advertising tool that is used by both contractors and homeowners.

The owner of Delta Bluegrass Company, Eddie Zuckerman, uses many marketing techniques to keep his business thriving in good times and bad.

Zuckerman himself came up with one of the company’s most successful advertising campaigns. It’s the painting of the Delta Bluegrass semitrucks, which haul the sod and fertilizer, to serve as rolling billboards that make the company stand out on the highway. He had seen this kind of vehicle advertising before, but he wanted to do more than just put the company name and phone number on there, so the company spends $4,000 to $6,000 extra for each of its 30 semitrailers to be painted with charming scenes of people utilizing turf.

Of course, the trucks do have contact information on them, but they primarily are panoramas of turf-friendly living. He says these billboards, which stress the Bolero label as well as the company’s other products, can be seen from a distance and are effective viewed from either side or the back of the trailer. They connect with the average driver on the California highways who is a potential turf customer, and the company gets a lot of feedback from garden centers and irrigation outlets who say people have asked for Delta Bluegrass products after seeing the trucks.

“We’ve made tens of millions of advertising impressions every year,” Zuckerman says, and these are generally new customers. He feels it is better than a TV ad that comes and goes in one minute. “We have people asking for (our products) who heretofore haven’t.”

The company does some other unusual advertising. One effective method is to set up sod displays at area nurseries. There might be four to six small plots of turf varieties or blends in each display. Delta Bluegrass plants them, and the nursery will be asked to irrigate and mow them. These allow people to compare how each variety will look in a growing situation.

The farm also hosts a couple of events every year. A Day On The Turf in the fall provides an on-site picnic and field day for customers and friends. This is a kind of thank-you for loyal clients. Another event is the Pots-4-Tots charity event, supported and advertised by Delta Bluegrass, but held at the Green Acres Nursery in Roseville. This is a recycling event where the public is encouraged to bring in and dispose of their old plastic plant pots. The company also donates sod to good causes like Little League and Habitat for Humanity, doing good in the community and creating good will for future customers.

The company, in addition to its other advertising efforts, also circulates its Blade newsletter twice a year to its list of over 2,000 clients and friends. A professional newsletter company produces the mail-out and Web publication, but Zuckerman often writes articles for it. It’s a good tool for sod distributors to hand out.

With all this attention to sales, you might guess that Zuckerman would have an active sales force, and that is true. He has five full-time sales people for the sod farm, and these employees are chosen for their self-starting mentality and their ability to synchronize with the tone of the farm and understand the nature of the turf industry. He makes a point of giving them the resources they need, and he sorts them into “hunters” and “farmers” as he learns their capabilities.

What that means, Zuckerman says, is that some people are more naturally suited to go out and find new clients and sales opportunities, while some people are more suited to cultivating and keeping close relationships with existing clients.

“It’s still a relationship-oriented business,” he says, and for that reason it behooves him to recruit sales people who can nurture long-term clients. To that end, the salesmen not only write up orders, they organize transportation and follow up once the sod has been installed. That fosters good relationships and fits in with the company policy of replacing any sod that fails, even if it’s the customer’s fault.

As both a means of selling more sod and as a benefit to customers, Delta Bluegrass has a large installation division. Out of its approximately 150 employees, up to 85 may be involved in delivering and installing sod. A fleet of 20 trucks is devoted to this enterprise. Zuckerman doesn’t want to intrude on the territory of his landscaper clients, but often he will act as a subcontractor and install sod as part of the value-added business that helps keep product moving. Sod for homeowners, for example, is more easily marketed if the customer knows he can get a quick installation from a knowledgeable sod grower.

Finally, at the top end of Zuckerman’s marketing campaign is his own personal effort. He enjoys, and dedicates himself to, what he calls “top-down selling.” This can be a personal meeting with a sports facility manager, a round of golf with an irrigation contractor or lunch with the owner of a landscape company. Although he is busy with a vegetable farm as well as the sod farm, he thinks it is important to get out and communicate with clients and put a face to the enterprise.

“If a customer wants to see me, I’m there,” he says. This is particularly important if there is a special request or if there has been some kind of problem with a product or an installation. An important part of the long-term relationship is the ability to be upfront at all times.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.