A growing business


A worker ties down pallets of Bluegrass sod on a truck at Tuckahoe Turf Farm on Wednesday in Hammonton, N.J.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 19, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 9:57 p.m.

NEWARK, N.J. - The Green Bay Packers have the homefield advantage in Sunday's NFC championship game, but the famous frozen tundra of Lambeau Field was grown in the New York Giants' backyard in New Jersey.

Tuckahoe Turf Farms, a sod grower between Philadelphia and Atlantic City, supplies grass for some of the country's most well-known sports venues, including Lambeau Field and Fenway Park.

James Betts, the grandson of the company's founder, said he'll be watching Sunday's game to keep an eye on "his'' grass, which was snow covered for last week's game against the Seattle Seahawks.

"At first, it was a really big deal, but after a while you kind of just get used to it,'' he said.

Tuckahoe ships its Kentucky bluegrass in refrigerated trucks to football stadiums in Green Bay and Cleveland and to sports teams closer to home, including the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals. It is growing grass now for the New York Mets' new stadium, which opens in 2009.

Business is good for the more than 2,100 farms nationwide that grow sod for homes, parks and sports fields. There's a steady demand, whether it's for backyard gardens, youth ballfields or giant stadiums, according to Kirk Hunter, executive director of Turfgrass Producers International.

Nursery, greenhouse and sod products are now New Jersey's largest agricultural export, surpassing fruits and vegetables with about $390 million in sales in 2006.

New Jersey's sandy soil is popular for professional sports venues because it drains well, said Stephen Hart, a specialist in turf management and weed science at Rutgers University.

Hart said clay-based soil from the Midwest doesn't work as well, and grass grown in Southern climates isn't hardy enough to withstand winter in the North.

Professional baseball and football teams started coveting the sand-based technology about 10 to 15 years ago, said Mike Boekholder, head groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies.

That's when Tuckahoe's business began to grow. The farm now has about 700 acres on land once cultivated for tomatoes, sweet potatoes and corn. Sales have nearly doubled, to between $4 million and $5 million annually.

Tuckahoe's sports business started when Princeton University wanted a sand-based field in the mid-1990s, Betts said.

Green Bay has been using Tuckahoe grass for more than six years. The iconic "frozen tundra'' of Lambeau Field consists of a quarter-inch layer of sod, above a foot of sand to allow for drainage.

"Sand doesn't get as slippery when it's wet. That's why sand is so important. It doesn't make mud when it's wet,'' said Allen Johnson, Green Bay's field manager.

About 40 percent of Tuckahoe's business comes from sports fields, parks and other recreational complexes. The housing market weakness has affected business, which Betts said was down about 25 percent in 2007.

Nationally, the sod industry is feeling the impact of the housing market slowdown, but sales to other outlets like sports fields continue to be strong, Hunter said.

Sales grew by 25 percent to $1 billion from 1997 to 2002, according to the most recent figures from the federal census of agriculture.

More than 386,000 acres of sod were grown in 2002, and Hunter expects a steady increase when the 2007 figures are released.

Bill Squires, president of the Stadium Managers Association, said many NFL teams prefer natural grass to artificial or synthetic turf.

But he said real grass gets torn up when stadiums are used by other sports teams and during concerts.

"The challenge we all have is the amount of use, the type of use and the climate that we play in,'' he said. "Flat out, I'm a grass guy. I think all of my peers are grass guys too, with the exception of the guys who have to play games in domes.''

NFL players prefer grass, too, because they believe it cuts down on injuries, according to a recent player's association survey.

Only a handful of companies across the country supply NFL and Major League Baseball stadiums with sod, said David Minner, a professor of horticulture at Iowa State University and the education chairman of the Sports Turf Managers Association.

Tuckahoe also sells sod for venues that don't have a high profile, including fields at Montclair High School and Summit High School in the northern Jersey suburbs.

Kendall Baker, a 16-year-old Summit High student, said it's cool to know his soccer field has the same grass as Lambeau field.

"I'll think about that every time I play,'' Baker said.

As for the Giants, they'll take any edge they can find to beat the Packers and advance to the Super Bowl.

"Maybe that (turf) will run in our favor and it will be kind to us,'' said placekicker Lawrence Tynes. "Maybe it will give our guys a little more grip.''

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