Expanding Their Turf

Craig Betterly remembers being teased as a kid about his family raising grass in lieu of traditional crops. But look who's laughing now.
Craig Betterly remembers being teased as a kid about his family raising grass in lieu of traditional crops. But look who's laughing now. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2006

Years ago, when Craig Betterly was in high school, the other farm kids in Nokesville used to tease him about the family business. Their parents raised dairy cattle and corn and soybeans -- hearty American staples -- while Craig's father appeared to be growing a giant lawn.

"Different times back then," said Betterly, 47, offering the type of laconic assessment one might expect from a man who has spent his life watching grass grow.

It was peak harvest time in the heart of Northern Virginia's sod belt, a spotty crescent of family-owned turf farms along the western edge of Prince William County and southern Loudoun, and Betterly was standing atop a spongy 150-acre expanse of Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue that seemed soft enough to sleep on. His HarveStack machine hummed along in the bright autumn sunshine, slicing bath towel-size strips of turf, then rolling and stacking them.

Most of the traditional farmers in the county, including the ones who used to snicker at Betterly, are long gone -- the owners bought out, the land subdivided, paved over, developed. But for Betterly and the few dozen other turf growers in the Washington region, years of booming real estate have been a green bonanza. Although rising production costs and land prices have made growing food in the Washington area untenable for many, turf growers have enjoyed a healthy appetite for their product -- among developers, landscapers and anyone eager for an insta-lawn that can be installed as conveniently as wall-to-wall carpeting.

In Virginia, the number of acres of sod under cultivation has skyrocketed in recent years, from 4,800 in 1998 to 7,500 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Maryland's sodscape is similar, with about 7,000 acres dedicated to turf grass production. A survey of the state's turf operations is underway because no one is sure how much the industry has grown.

"The last seven or eight years have been phenomenal," said grower Tom Warpinski, former president of the Maryland Turfgrass Association. "Sod farmers are selling everything they produce right now. We can't grow it fast enough."

Mike Goatley, a turf grass specialist at Virginia Tech, said the sod business has been "lucrative." The high-quality stuff retails for 50 to 60 cents per square foot. "I think it's one of the most profitable commodities in the state," he said. "The sod market goes hand-in-hand with construction."

As turf farming has grown more profitable, though, a sod paradox has set in: The industry is fed by the same suburban development that seeks to consume it.

Fresh-cut grass tends to have a shelf life of fewer than 24 hours, and landscapers generally want their turf rolls delivered in the morning. So they prefer to buy from farms close to the suburban areas where much of the building boom has occurred -- and where the pressure from developers to sell is also the greatest.

"The housing market keeps encroaching," said Vernon Cooper, turf grass agronomist and owner of All States Turfgrass Consulting in Maryland. "Everything from Baltimore to Washington is already houses, so the industry is shifting to the Eastern Shore."

Warpinski and his brother Bill typify this trend, having started their operation, Central Sod Farm, in southern Anne Arundel County in 1985. They relocated across the Chesapeake Bay in 1991 to Queen Anne's County, and with 1,400 acres, the Warpinski brothers are now the state's largest producers.

The Warpinski family is something of a sod dynasty, with six additional siblings operating farms in Illinois. Would-be turf farmers interested in converting their cropland face significant obstacles though, according to Tom, because the industry requires marketing savvy, customer service experience and some serious seed money.

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