In Alabama, the suffocating summer heat has given way to the next season — one highly anticipated since the cold days of January. But it’s not the falling leaves of autumn Alabamians are welcoming. Instead, it’s the season of sizzling tailgate grills, booming drumlines and the roar of the hometown crowds as their “boys of fall” rush the field. It’s finally here — football season.
The unsung star of these Friday night high school football rituals is the lush carpet of green sod. It’s marched on, trampled, smashed and smeared, but when properly cared for, rejuvenates weekly to set the stage for another gridiron classic.
“Every piece of grass is like an athlete on the field,” said Paul Salzmann, owner and operator of Salzmann Turf Farms. “If it’s babied, the grass will be too tender. It has to develop a strong root system to take the beating of football games.”
Paul is an expert on laying and taking care of athletic field sod. Since he started his business in 1980, grass grown at his Elberta farm has graced professional football and baseball fields across the U.S. He decided to focus on more local businesses in 2008 because higher fuel and freight costs made it expensive to ship sod long distances.
Now, he and his family work with high school athletic programs around the Gulf Coast. They guarantee the sod they lay and can replace a football field for around $30,000.
“It’s great to work with high school coaches,” Paul said. “A lot of them don’t know much about sod. They listen and really appreciate all the information we provide.”
To help maintain quality fields, Paul offers a turf management program for high schools, whether he laid the sod or not. He fertilizes and seeds rye grass on fields while consulting with coaches and grounds crews about mowing, watering and painting.
Blount High School (BHS) head coach Mark Hurt turned to Paul for advice when he took over the school’s football program in 2012. The field was in dismal shape, and a number of players had suffered serious injuries, partly due to the field’s condition. Two seasons later, the field is a pristine blanket of green Bermuda and rye grass.
“Last year, all the officials who called games here and coaches from visiting teams commented on how great the field looked,” Hurt said. “A lot of them remember coming here three seasons ago and how bad it was then. The turf management program from Salzmann Farms is outstanding.”
When Alabama State University and the University of Southern Mississippi hosted day camps at the field near the Mobile County town of Eight Mile this summer, Hurt said participants were impressed with the field quality.
“Coach Hurt has revived the BHS football program, and he works extremely hard to make the field something the team and its supporters can be proud of,” said Kathy Salzmann, Paul’s wife, who handles sales for the farm.
That pride was at an all-time high last season when the BHS Leopards finally broke a 14-game losing streak to crosstown rival Vigor High School at their home field with a 40-13 victory. It was a convincing win, celebrated on a thick blanket of Salzmann sod.
When Paul started the sod operation more than three decades ago, he relied on the help and expertise of other local farmers including Baldwin County Farmers Federation President David Bitto. He said he considers it a blessing to share that same knowledge with local football coaches.
Paul will continue to lead the turf management after he hands the farm over sometime next year to his son, Zack.
“My grandfather bought this land when he immigrated from Switzerland in 1912,” Paul said. “This change will let me focus on the athletic programs and special projects — and give me time to captain my boat and fish.”
Zack will be the fourth generation of the family to work the land in Elberta. The Salzmann’s daughter, Annelise, also has an interest in agriculture and is studying biosystems engineering at Auburn University
For more information on Salzmann Turf Farms and the turf management program, visit alabama-grass.com.