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Tough input customers

Early in the summer of 2020, the growers at Green Velvet Sod Farms recognized a problem in the making. Muirfield Village Golf Club, located in Dublin, Ohio, had placed an order for 30 acres of Kentucky bluegrass. At the same time, Westfield Country Club, west of Akron, decided to regrass all 18 holes and placed an even larger bluegrass order. Green Velvet owner Randy Tischer could feel his firm slipping into that nether region, where no sod farmer ever wants to be.

“The only time a sod grower really wants to spend extra money to grow his plant is when he cannot produce it fast enough,” Tischer says. “There have been many times through the years when we have run short of sod. When that happens and you don’t have a product to sell, there is nothing worse. If I can see that coming, I will try anything to grow the plant faster.

“At the same time, for a sod grower, you have to maintain a balance: I can usually get good turf from a cosmetic perspective – but will it hold together or fall apart like spaghetti in your hands? Will it harvest? It’s all about the root system. That’s where a sod grower will spend the extra money on some inputs, to help him grow faster while maintaining a quality sod product that will harvest.”

 Green Velvet is not your typical sod-farming operation. Tischer’s parents founded the company in 1959. In time, the family added three more locations, or “branches,” as Tischer refers to them. Early on, the Tischers saw potential in becoming a distributor – selling an ever-increasing supply of turf and ornamental products to customers visiting each of their branches. Today, Green Velvet is well known across the Ohio golf, sports turf, lawncare, landscape and ornamental markets as a grower of premium sod and a full distributor of turf & ornamental products.

 Yet Tischer speaks for sod growers everywhere when he declares his ambivalence toward inputs. Sod farmers are famously disinterested in spending money they cannot recoup or pass along to customers. But there’s a rich layer of irony here, when we consider that Green Velvet is, in fact, in the business of selling inputs to everyone else.

“No one grows grass like Mother Nature does. Without the help of Mother Nature, the smartest turf professional doing everything right – with the best products — will come off looking like they don’t know the first thing about growing grass,” Tischer says.  “Over the years, I’ve actually tried a lot of inputs. Most of them never pass The So What Test. Very few products do what they say they do. We’re just a bunch of cheap SOBs here and we try to watch our money. But we are willing to spend money on products that work and Kevin’s got himself a product that is worth spending money on.”

Kevin Lewis is the Midwest regional sales manager for Ecologel, maker of the root-growth biostimulant CytoGro, among other plant-health products. The Green Velvet distributorship has carried Ecologel products for years.

Even so, Lewis, who has been in the green industry for 34 years, knows better than try to sell a sod grower on the benefits of this product or that.

“Totally. The Green Velvet guys came to me about the CytoGro,” Lewis says. “I know sod growers don’t traditionally have much time for inputs. However, by the same token, if you own a nursery and you can’t get your sod out in time, that’s money down the toilet. So, to have a sod grower come to me and have CytoGro hit it out of the park? That’s what we call a win-win.”

Doug Swope and Mike Blair are the farm managers at Green Velvet. They don’t have quite the disdain for inputs as Randy Tischer, but neither do they disagree with his overall assessment.

“The more inputs, the less money we make on the back end,” Blair says. “But we were in a situation last year where we had a couple big jobs coming up, putting us in a short situation on bluegrass. So we were looking for something to accelerate our process to harvest. If we couldn’t find it, we might cut ourselves out of some business.

“We had tried a few things in the past but went with CytoGro and I tell you what: Where we used it, it worked great.” 

Swope jumped in: “Mike and I have been here for years doing this. You know your fields. You know this one may take a little longer than another one. But the faster we can grow and harvest the sod, the better, of course.  And I tell you what: We picked up at least three to four months on the process with CytoGro. It usually takes us 15 to 18 months to turn a bluegrass field. On fields where we did three applications, we could have harvested after 11 or 12 months. Now, we had a wet spring [in 2020], which helped. But we’re getting more sod faster. It’s pretty simple.”

 CytoGro is a seaweed-based, root-growth biostimulant formulated to promote and maintain healthy root mass during heat/stress periods. Cytokinins are a class of phytohormones that promote cell division, or cytokinesis, in plant roots and shoots. They are involved primarily in cell growth and differentiation.

 The golf industry, in general, and superintendents, in particular, understand and interact routinely with the sod growing community. They’re both cultivators of turf, after all. But in several important respects, according to Lewis, “The two groups are allied, but their mindset is different.” In short, supers care equally about what’s happening above and below the soil surface. Sod growers care pretty exclusively about the subterranean world — a realm where root growth is king.

“CytoGro differs from other biostimulants in that it’s formulated to stimulate the growth of fine, root-hair density, as opposed to simple root fattening,” says Lewis, whose resume includes 12 years as a golf course superintendent. “The more hairs, the more apt they are to grab nutrients in the soil profile. In the golf context, you can see why this would be useful. It tends to be most popular with superintendents on greens, to be honest – because of the stress superintendents routinely put their putting surfaces through.”

“Sod growers are a tough sell on account of their relationship to all inputs. But in another way, CytoGro is tailor-made for them: Sod farms grow grass, cut it, roll it up, get it off the property, rinse and repeat. But with each cycle, you take good soil away – on those rolls. The soil at a sod farm continually gets worse because the best soil layers roll away on the trucks! You’re taking nutrients away each time. That’s a special type of stress and you need something to help the plant thrive in those conditions.”

Swope and Blair have found themselves in need of a root-growth booster before. They tried several humic products but, “I can’t honestly stand here and say that we got any accelerated growth out of them,” Blair says. “And they were also hard to work with, in the sprayer.”

Come spring, they plan “blanket coverage” for their bluegrass fields, thanks to a pair of liquid, easy-mixing CytoGro drums scheduled for delivery in this month.

“If you can turn a crop in one year,” Swope says, “and turn around and do another crop, and you are satisfying the customer, we come out a whole lot better, even with the cost of the inputs.” But Kentucky bluegrass only accounts for about 10 percent of the turf nurtured at Green Velvet’s four branches. Swope says they fully intend to “keep this program going” by experimenting with CytoGro on other turf varieties during 2021, especially fescues, which account for 80 percent of their annual crop.

“We have a fine leaf fescue customer who needs product by June, so we’re going to try to push it with CytoGro,” Swope continues. “The fine leaf is temperamental. There are two growing windows each year, one in the wet of spring and another in the fall. What we need to do is push it this spring, for June harvest.”

Blair anticipates a similar regimen on their no-net fescue fields, a product commonly used on athletic fields.

Make no mistake, Tischer may be a longtime input skeptic but he’s got no problem adjusting to reality. Green Velvet started as a sod farm growing Kentucky bluegrass exclusively, here in the Transition Zone of southern Ohio. “Turf-type tall fescue became available and back in early days, we couldn’t give it away,” Tischer says. “No one understood what it was or what it could do. Now it’s very popular among homeowners, sports turf and golf courses. Our golf sales are equally split between blue and turf-type tall fescue sod in the marketplace. Twenty years ago it was 100 percent blue.

“We used to grow a bit of bentgrass but my father said, a smart business man knows when to say no. What we discovered was, it was fun and interesting to grow a very nice product – we just couldn’t afford to do it on speculation. Not when we grow bluegrass and turf-type tall fescue on advance orders.

“Kevin doesn’t like me to say this, but I don’t plan to use CytoGro on all 600 acres. We used it on the areas we need to focus on for harvest. Kevin might tell me I’m being a bit foolish, that I should expand my horizons and he may be right. Water and fertilizer will get you a long way but you can only push the plant so hard with water and fertilizer. That’s where these products come in. The majority of them do not pass The So What Test. This is one that does.”

Hal Phillips is a Maine-based freelance writer, managing director of Mandarin Media, Inc., and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.

Golf Course Industry

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