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.
"To start up a full-fledged sod farm, you need a substantial investment in machinery," he said, estimating that even a small 200-acre farm would need more than $1 million worth of mowing and irrigation equipment, forklifts and delivery trucks -- not to mention the auto-harvesting machines that average $250,000 apiece. Sod is no quick-turnaround crop, either, requiring 12 to 18 months to develop a mature root structure that will survive the farm-to-lawn transplant.
Then there's the weather, that fickle scourge of every farmer. Sod farming requires massive amounts of water, especially in summer, and growers need access to streams and rivers or deep wells to irrigate during droughts. Local environmental groups say that heavy water use and fertilizer runoff are concerns associated with sod just as with many other crops. Warpinski and other growers are quick to tout their product as an eco-boosting counterbalance to global warming and pollution.
"Home lawns are very beneficial -- by producing oxygen, controlling erosion and creating a cooling effect," he said.
Disgruntled homeowners and embittered yard buffs who've had bad sod experiences have learned that there's more to lawn care than simply rolling out the grass. Soils need to be tested for pH levels, drainage and fertility. Fresh-laid sod needs lots of water to take root. "It's like a transplant of a heart or anything else," said Betterly, who operates Centreville Sod Inc. "If you don't get a transfusion, it won't work."
Despite sod's newfound popularity, leaner times could be ahead for the industry with the market for new homes flagging. Unlike some crops that can be left unharvested and then plowed under to fertilize the soil during a weak market, turf must be cut within one to two years of reaching maturity -- or risk infestation from grubs and other pests.
Growers who have diversified by planting blends more suitable for golf courses and sports fields -- using more Bermuda grass, for example -- will enjoy some protection from a downturn in residential demand.
"From the beginning, I wanted to sell grass in any capacity," said Eddie Moore, 26, of Collins Wharf Sod Farm in Eden. "I wanted to be in the sports market, the housing market, the golf market. We've always been successful in diversifying the crops we grew."
Moore, a fourth-generation farmer, said his grandfather was initially skeptical of his plan to stop producing food and start growing turf. "He said, 'I've spent my life trying to kill grass in my fields, and now you want to grow it?' " Moore recalled. The family went from having 60 acres of sod in 1999 to 450 today, and its grass now covers the fields of RFK Stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the PGA-level TPC Avenel golf course in Potomac. "My grandfather has done a one-eighty," Moore said.
As Paul House, a Nokesville farmer named the 2006 Virginia Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Farmer of the Year, put it, "you do what you have to do to survive." When House started raising dairy cattle, corn and soybeans 40 years ago, 125 dairy farms dotted Prince William. Today, his Kettle Wind Farm is one of two. He planted 100 acres of sod in 1997 and now spends most of his time managing a 1,300-acre turf operation just across the road from Betterly. "It's a good living," he said. "My commute is out my back door."
Besides, House said, Nokesville soil was never very good for growing grain. "The great soils are in Manassas," he said, "but it's all covered with housing now."