Red Hen Turf evolves from home lawns to acres of turf

In light of the current economic downturn, most sod producers have cut back their sod acreage. Red Hen Turf Farm in New Carlisle, Ind., owned by David and Renee Millar, is currently growing about 200 acres of Kentucky bluegrass sod, down from 300 during the peak sod market. With its sales divided evenly between wholesale and retail, the family-owned Red Hen Turf continues to have a good customer base and has brought in a number of new customers. While focusing on meeting customers’ needs with top-quality sod to assure return business, the company is placing a strong emphasis on encouraging landscapers to use big roll sod to cut labor required for installation.

Sod is harvested in big rolls with WMI 30-inch Rollmaster sod cutters.

The business was originally started in Berrien Springs, Mich., by three partners: brothers Ronald and Victor Keigley and their neighbor Harold Hetler. The partners moved into the turf business from their start of seeding home lawns in their new subdivision. Red Hen Turf moved to 420 acres in New Carlisle, Ind., in 1964, and the Millars purchased the sod farm in 1983, adding it to their existing 180-acre row crop farm. Production acreage has now grown to 1,300 acres. In addition to sod, corn, soybeans and wheat are grown.

Red Hen Turf continues to evolve, and the business is currently in transition, as David and Renee are in the process of transferring ownership of the farm to their son, Gordon.

Technology

Increased use of technology has already made a significant impact on the way Red Hen Turf does business in both production and marketing. Despite the downturned economy, David notes that Red Hen Turf has a number of both returning and new customers. “Landscapers are our biggest customers,” he says. “We don’t install turf because we don’t want to compete with our landscape customers.” He credits marketing through a Web site with bringing in new customers. About 80 percent of the turf goes into residential lawn installation.

David, left, and Gordon Millar of Red Hen Turf in New Carlisle, Ind.

“We’re about 50 percent wholesale and 50 percent retail,” David says.

David is a strong proponent of big roll sod. He notes, “Big roll sod can be laid twice as fast with half the effort. We got into big rolls when labor was so tight and landscapers faced tough labor competition. The big rolls are labor savers.” Although expensive equipment is required, big rolls allows landscapers to expand business with less concern about labor availability. While big rolls have traditionally been used primarily on large jobs, David says that many landscapers have adapted to big roll installation.

“Landscapers are using the big rolls all the way down to 200-square-foot lawns,” he said. “We own a fleet of Brouwer 2430 sod installers that we rent to landscapers for use in laying turf, and we work with them so that they can learn to use the sod installers.” Red Hen Turf is a parts supplier and also provides support for the Brouwer sod installers.

Growing sod

Red Hen Turf begins the sod with seeding using a Brillion seeder. Bluegrass sod is grown from Jacklin Seed from National Seeds in Lemont, Ill. “We watch the NTEP trials and may add or subtract something,” David says.

Northern Indiana receives ample rainfall and snow cover annually, so water availability is not an issue. On-site wells provide irrigation water for the fully irrigated sod farm, and daily irrigation is used for harvesting as needed. “We use center pivot,” David says. “We use T-L pumps. We like the hydraulic drive that is reliable and doesn’t require electricity, and it’s easily fixed if needed. We work with Zirk Welding, Eau Claire, Mich.” Red Hen Turf uses a Trebro AutoStack harvester and two WMI 30-inch Rollmaster sodcutters when harvesting the sod.

Freshly cut sod is stacked on a pallet awaiting pickup.

Progressive 36-foot rotary mowers are used on the sod. “We use GPS steering for maximum efficiency,” David says. They have used GPS steering for about three years. They purchase their John Deere equipment from Great Lakes Green Power, Eau Claire, Mich.

Red Hen Turf employs three full-time employees year-round and about nine part-time workers added during the summer months. The company has four semi-trucks and flatbeds that carry Princeton piggyback forklifts to deliver the sod to their customers. Sod is delivered primarily within a 50-mile radius in northern Indiana, including the metropolitan areas of South Bend and Ft. Wayne, and in southwestern Michigan. The sod farm is located within close proximity to Elkhart, Granger and LaPorte, Ind., and on-farm pickup is also offered.

Team effort

David notes that representatives of manufacturers and dealers are particularly helpful to turf producers. “We work with Ivan True from Trebro, and with Ed Woener from WMI,” he said.

Red Hen Turf is a member of Sod Growers Association of Mid-America, Turf Producers International and Illinois Turfgrass Foundation, and David notes the value of research and seminars to turf producers. “The seminars we’ve attended by Dr. Henry Wilkinson, University of Illinois, are always helpful,” he says.

A Trebro Autostack is used to harvest standard rolls of sod.

David is particularly enthusiastic about the potential of turf and the need for more promotion of turf by the industry. “It’s provided a good living. I like to help people to provide a good product with good value.” He says, however, that more promotion of turfgrass is needed. “We need to do more promotion as an industry. Promotion of turfgrass as an excellent environmental approach is needed.” He cites the national concern about erosion, saying, “Turf can stop erosion.”

He also emphasizes, “Professionalism of sod growers is important to the industry. When sod has a bad reputation, it’s hard to succeed. Most are professional, and that’s very important.”

Looking ahead

Gordon grew up working in the sod operations with his father, and he has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture from Purdue University.

“My father thought I should work in another industry for a while,” Gordon says. So, he worked for Farm Credit Services before joining operations at Red Hen Turf, and will assume ownership of Red Hen Turf in the coming year.

Gordon sees his biggest challenge in the turf business as continuing to grow the business. “I’ll do that by streamlining the systems we have in place and diversifying into specialty crops, while adding acres to sod production as needed. I’ll do everything possible to retain repeat business.” He says that sod growers may have fewer customers, so retaining business is essential.

“We have great soil fertility,” he says, noting that his agricultural degree makes him more aware of how to go about managing his business. Continuing Red Hen Turf’s focus on meeting customers’ needs is a significant part of his business plans. “We go the extra mile for customers,” he says.

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.