Efficiency is key element in operations

Turf farms across the country are feeling the effects of the economy and the reduced demand for sod. Turf prices have remained flat for some time while production costs have increased. Uhl Turf Nursery, Inc. in Memphis, Ind., is small by industry standards, but continues to maintain a steady customer base by focusing on integrity and customer service.

A Princeton forklift is used to move a loaded sod pallet from the field.
Photos courtesy of Uhl Turf Nursery.

“Integrity is the most important thing in doing business,” says Jeff Uhl. “Do what you said you’ll do, when you said you will do it, and address any problems that may come up.” Uhl grows about 120 acres of turf-type fescue and Kentucky bluegrass turf, and Uhl Turf serves a customer base in the surrounding Indiana community and in Louisville, Ky., which lies just across the Ohio River. “We deliver turf mostly within a 20-mile radius,” he says. “Our turf is on everything from golf courses to athletic fields to subdivision lawns to hospital grounds.” About 80 percent of the company’s turf is sold to contractors, with about 20 percent sold in pick-up sales for home lawns.

His father, Jude Uhl, started the business 1959 as Uhl Seeding and Sodding Service, and the name was changed to Uhl Turf Nursery, Inc. in 1986. “Turf wasn’t always very good quality back then,” Uhl says. “Higher-end jobs sometimes would specify ‘nursery-grown turf,’ and my dad started growing his own turf in 1964 using the word ‘nursery’ in the business name so customers would know it was nursery grown. I started helping with the turf when I was 10 years old, and I grew up with the turf business.” While Uhl is primarily a grower, he does subcontract turf installation upon request.

Efficiency and customer relations

Turf demand has been down significantly in the past year, but a slowdown has been occurring for several years. Uhl says, “We hit the first bump in the road in 2007. We have had to be creative and take on more highway work. We have to focus on being efficient in everything we do.” That has meant paying special attention to maintaining equipment even more carefully than usual to postpone new purchases.

“Most turf farmers try to buy a new piece of equipment about every year. We bought only one small piece of equipment last year. I work with an independent repair shop, and he has mentioned his business has increased as a number of people are repairing more equipment instead of buying new,” Uhl says.

Although fuel costs have increased, Uhl Turf’s limited delivery area somewhat reduces concern about fuel costs. “Most of our turf is delivered in this area, but we have delivered turf as far away as Nashville, Indianapolis and Chicago,” he says. “We delivered to Chicago when a landscaper was trying to finish up a job and nobody was cutting farther north. We were far enough south that we could still cut turf.”

He also says, “We have a lot more highway jobs now, and one landscaper in particular buys big-roll sod for highway jobs.” Big-roll sod represents about 15 percent of Uhl Turf’s business. Bluegrass turf is used primarily for highway projects because it is less expensive than the fescue turf.

“We’ve seen the trend in the classified ads in the number of sod farm auctions,” Uhl says. While some sod farmers have ceased sod production and switched to row crops, others have simply stopped farming. Uhl points out that maintaining good customer relations for return business and referrals are essential, particularly with the lower demand for sod.

Jeff Uhl, left, talks with foreman Joe Masingo.

“I paid attention to the way my dad did business,” he says. “We try to be homeowner-friendly. If it means starting up the turf harvester to cut just a couple of rolls of turf for a customer who needs it for a home lawn, we’ll do that.” He emphasizes the importance of maintaining good customer relations in all aspects of the business. “One of our home builder customers is a grandson of a homebuilder who was one of our original customers,” he says.

Uhl notes that promptly addressing any problems that may come up is essential. While he says that problems are rare, it’s very important to address and clear up any misunderstandings immediately. “We’re small enough that I have all my calls forwarded to my cell phone, that way customers can always reach me,” he says.

Growing turf

Careful timing of fertilizer applications is important for efficient turf production. Uhl owns two farms and rents two additional sites. Most of the soil is a clay loam. Fertilizer and lime is worked into the soil just prior to planting followed by regular applications, and the fertilizer is applied to fescue only until the end of March. “If we push it through April, we run the risk of brown patch when there’s too much growth with the high humidity in about June. We can push fertilizer with bluegrass another month or so.”

Postemergent weed control spray is applied only if weeds are evident. Mowing usually starts in March using two Progressive 22-foot mowers.

Indiana receives ample rainfall, and high humidity is the norm. While some turf growers irrigate their turf, others depend only on regular rainfall for moisture. “We irrigate very little,” Uhl says. “We use handset aluminum pipe and impact sprayers on a small amount of turf when needed.” Irrigation water is drawn from ponds that collect runoff. “We built a new pond last year within sight of the house so we get to enjoy the view of the pond,” he says.

Seed is obtained from Lewis Seed Co. in Louisville. Uhl says the blends are adjusted every year or so to offer improved turf quality. “In fescue, we’re looking primarily for texture, color and brown patch resistance. In bluegrass, we look for heavy rooting, color, disease resistance and uniformity.”

“We stayed with hand-cutting for a long time,” Uhl says. “Significant changes occurred in turf production in the 1970s that included forklifts and palletized turf; all those changes in turf production were what kept me interested in growing turf.”

Uhl uses a Vanvuuren Turf Tick turf harvesting machine manufactured in the Netherlands. “I saw it at a TPI convention in Rhode Island,” he says. “It’s very consistent and does a good job. I dealt with an Oregon distributor, but it’s no longer distributed in the United States.” Turf is harvested in small rolls that measure 16 inches by 6 feet 9 inches. “It’s more efficient for us to make 75-roll pallets, and we can haul nearly as much turf on a straight truck as on a semi.” The big rolls are harvested with a WMI turf cutter in rolls measuring 30 inches by 108 feet.

Uhl finds the VanVuuren Turf Tick sod cutter consistent in performance.

Networking

Uhl Turf Nursery advertises in the yellow pages, but most business referrals are by word-of-mouth. “Most people in this area know us,” he says. A new venture of advertising via the Internet has begun with a Web site at www.uhlturf.com.

Uhl has been a member of Turf Producers International (TPI) since 1979 and strongly supports the networking opportunities it offers. “You can attend seminars, and that is helpful, but you can go to these conferences and rub elbows with these guys. You compare notes with other people in the business,” he says. He also cites the importance of the access to major suppliers provided at TPI conferences.

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.