The current downturned economy has produced a slowdown in both residential and business development, which affects businesses across the country. Many businesses are developing cost-saving measures and diversifying their interests.
Foxcroft Meadows, Inc. in Crystal Lake, Ill., about 50 miles northwest of Chicago, is owned by Ray Boro and Mark Barchard. Both have worked in the sod industry most of their lives; they became partners five years ago when they purchased Foxcroft Meadows.
The downturned economy has resulted in a nearly 50 percent drop in sales at Foxcroft Meadows, matching much of the sod industry’s experience. While a number of sod growers are switching to row crops, Boro and Barchard have decided to slow down their sod fields rather than pushing them for quick harvest as they normally would be doing. They currently grow about 500 acres of sod, down about 200 acres from two years ago. About 85 percent of Foxcroft Meadows sod is bluegrass, which includes a very small amount of a shade-tolerant blend. The remaining 15 percent is a salt-tolerant mix grown to Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) specifications.
Foxcroft Meadows was started in 1959 by Henry Carroll in Cary, Ill., and Carroll later moved his operation to Crystal Lake. The established business and name recognition for quality sod is a strong plus in maintaining business. Barchard’s father, John, was employed at Foxcroft Meadows. In the 1970s, Barchard and Carroll invented and patented the Spyder forklift. The first 800 Spyder forklifts were manufactured at the Foxcroft Meadows sod farm in Crystal Lake; the product was later sold to a Texas company.
Steady Chicagoland expansion over the past two decades has kept the demand for sod high throughout the region with demand falling only recently. “We planted 360 acres of sod in 2007,” Boro said. “We planted only 20 acres in 2008, and this year we planted just 2.5 acres.”
Although ample rain falls in northeastern Illinois, Foxcroft Meadows grows sod under irrigation to assure uniformity. “We use western style lateral irrigation lines,” Boro said. Irrigation water is pumped directly from creeks or open drainage ditches.
Boro noted that while they focus on producing weed-free, high-quality sod, producing sod rolls that are tough enough to withstand the handling required at job sites is also a major goal. “We want the rolls to hold together if they are thrown off a truck,” he said. “The sod has to be mature enough with a strong root system to hold together. Insects or other challenges can weaken the root system.”
Foxcroft Meadows grows sod on a combination of mineral and peat soils. Soil testing has helped in developing a fertilization plan to increase production. Boro said, “We learned from soil testing that our soil was iron-deficient in places. It wasn’t uniform across the field, but with the soil testing we were able to correct that.”
Foxcroft Meadows uses a Brouwer harvester, cutting 30-inch-wide, 10-square-foot rolls, and a Texas sod harvester cutting 30-inch-wide, 225-square-foot rolls needed for large projects. Roseman reel-type mowers and Progressive rotary mowers are used. “We like the cut of the reel mowers, but the rotary mowers work well when it gets dry,” Boro said.
“We look at the NTEP tests and pick varieties mostly from that, and our suppliers suggest varieties to us,” Boro said. Most seed is obtained from National Seed Co. and Summit Seeds.
While Foxcroft Meadows often uses netting in sod production, some fields currently are not netted. “With netting, you can sometimes produce the sod with a strong root system in half the time,” Boro said. Because current demand is down, extensive acreage is being allowed to mature more slowly. “We may let it grow twice as long,” he said.
About 90 to 95 percent of Foxcroft Meadows sod is sold wholesale. Sod is delivered via contract delivery or picked up by customers. Boro noted that sod prices have not increased as the prices of other products have and that sometimes growers have excess sod and will cut prices. “I don’t fault anybody for trying to sell their sod,” he said. “We try not to get into a bidding war. We just try to keep our quality high.”
Diversifying business and cutting costs
Foxcroft Meadows had already begun to diversify its business into landscape supply sales prior to the drop in demand for sod, and the landscape supply business segment has been expanded. The company is a dealer for Paveloc and Belgard pavers. Erosion control blankets by North American Green, Mat, Inc. and American Excelsior are carried along with seed, fertilizer, mulch, gravel and other associated landscape supplies.
Most sod sales are to customers that are primarily builders and landscapers. Telephone book advertising and limited Internet advertising is done, but most new customers come through word-of-mouth referrals.
About 10 seasonal workers and two full-time, year-round employees are currently employed. “We have had up to 18 seasonal; we’ve cut back on employees. We use fewer fertilizer applications and cut our seeding rate and fertilizer. We back off on irrigation as we let the fields grow more slowly,” Boro said. Maintenance is always a high-priority focus, but has taken on increased significance as older equipment is used longer instead of being replaced.
Boro handles orders and landscape inventory supplies at Foxcroft Meadows, and Barchard is more involved in daily production and managing employees. They both work in sod harvesting and equipment maintenance.
“The need for sod is fluctuating. Keeping the right amount of sod inventory is the most difficult part of the sod business,” Boro said. While some sod operations contract ahead for fuel and energy, Foxcroft Meadows purchases both as needed.
Sod sales are directly tied to development, and with declining development, most sod industry operations are feeling the impacts. Boro said, “We all depend on building needs to sell our sod.”
He sees a strong market for sod when development again expands, and noted that sod is particularly important in home lawns where homeowners usually do not have the time to devote to the care of newly seeded lawns. A major advantage of sod is in erosion control, which has received increased focus in recent years with increased legislation requiring erosion control measures whenever soil is disturbed.
Foxcroft Meadows is a member of Turf Producers International and Sod Growers Association of Mid-America. Boro is a past president if Sod Growers Association of Mid-America and currently serves on the board of directors.
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.