A decade after the 2008 recession cut demand for sod, an upturn in the economy has sod farmers seeing green again.
“Before the recession, we were really busy,” said Jimmy Bassett, co-owner of Beck’s Turf Farm in Tuskegee. “The phone was ringing off the hook. During the recession, we all had to pitch in to keep up the business. Now we’re seeing a resurgence in the sod industry, which is great for us because we’re able to stay busy.”
Increased demand for turf in homes, businesses, schools and athletic fields post-recession is leveling the playing field for sod producers. It’s a trend Bassett said he hopes continues, noting his business success is directly related to the housing industry.
Labor is one of the industry’s biggest challenges, he said. Someone has to fertilize, mow at least twice a week, control weeds and water fields to keep grass growing at Beck’s, which was founded in 1938. It is thought to be America’s oldest zoysia-growing turf farm.
“We were able to keep our employees during the recession,” Bassett said. “But we did have to cut down on hours so we could keep the doors open and not lose any of our help.”
Along with zoysia, Beck’s grows centipede grass and three varieties of Bermuda grass.
Farmer Jon Hegeman said the industry boon cultivated more opportunity for Alabama farmers.
“Our producers are excited to see this resurgence in the sod industry,” said Hegeman, who chairs the Alabama Farmers Federation’s State Greenhouse, Nursery & Sod Committee. “New homes and construction have attributed to the industry’s growth. These days, many producers have a hard time keeping up with demand.”
Dallas County sod producer Tres Wilkinson said the recession also negatively affected his business, but he bounced back with a different market for turf.
“About 70 percent of our sod is produced primarily for athletic surfaces in the Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Atlanta metropolitan areas,” said Wilkinson, South Dallas Turf Farm vice president. “We’ve also serviced several SEC (Southeastern Conference) teams, including Auburn University and the University of Alabama.”
Sod is harvested by machines that lift and roll 42-inch strips or 16’ X 24” slabs off the ground. Regeneration typically takes 15-18 weeks during the summer following harvest.
South Dallas Turf Farm also rolled into a stable market — school systems.
“The school system market came at a crucial time for our business,” Wilkinson said. “We found that even during an economic recession, there is always a need for schools to update lawns and athletic fields.”
For Wilkinson, growing a crop from the ground up is satisfying, especially when customers are pleased with the products.
“The most fulfilling part of my job is the pleasure of growing a good product and making people happy,” he said. “Some nights, we sweat bullets just hoping things will go right, and the next day, after everything is said and done, it almost always does.”