Eugene Bowie Roberts Jr. is on all fours, crawling on the brownish sod that is in an arrested state of development. He pulls up a blade of grass by the root, peels back the crisp, parched leaf, and examines the "crown" part of the plant, between the roots and the leaf, to see whether it shows any signs of life.
"Well, if the Lord decided to make it rain today, it may make it," he said, after performing an impromptu biopsy on the part that determines whether a green leaf will succumb to thirst brought on by the harsh drought. "That times 25 million is what's going on in this particular field," Roberts said, motioning toward a football field-sized tract of land representing a small portion of his 1,000-acre Fairwood Turf Farm in Glenn Dale.
That times untold trillions is what is happening around the country.
The shortage of water has made federal disaster areas of several states, including Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and New Jersey, and water restrictions imposed in Maryland have added to the turf business's woes. The restrictions also affect the landscapers who are Roberts's main clients, leaving Fairwood, one of the top three turf farms in Maryland, running a sparse 10 percent to 20 percent of its sales levels in a normal year.
"You can just drive yourself nuts" fretting about how much business hemorrhages when bad years like this one hit, Roberts said. "People ask us, `Is the sod guaranteed?' Well, it's guaranteed to die if you don't water it."
Rainfall in July was at about a quarter of its normal level of 4.6 inches, and even the occasional showers that hit the area don't provide Fairwood with much relief. "For some reason a lot of thunderstorms seem to go toward the Patuxent or Potomac [rivers] and split and go on either side of us," he said. He and his 12-member full-time staff have tried rain dances and have considered biblically renaming the farm "Job's Acres," but to no avail.
Turf businesses like his depend on market and real estate fluctuations as much as the weather. When the economy tanks -- as was the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s -- business can be off by 50 percent, Roberts said. But now, with historically low home interest rates and a hot Washington housing market, Roberts said he might have been selling as much as 3,000 square yards of sod for $3,600 a day. Instead, sales in the past 18 months have fallen to a paltry $25 or so a day.
Roberts doesn't rock the boat at the first signs of real trouble. He said he has not laid off staff and has no plans to do so. "You put something away in the good years to deal with the bad ones," he said.
It's a bad one for turf farmers all around. Tom Warpinski, president of Central Sod Farms in Centerville, runs the largest turf farm in Maryland. Usually, summer sales range from $6,000 to $8,000 a day, but one morning recently, sales stopped at $300. Warpinski expects annual revenue to be off its normal $2 million by at least 25 percent.
But weather hardship in this business is standard fare. Roberts said Fairwood has gotten about 16 inches of rain this year, which may not sound that dire, but the shortage is reflected in the brownish hue of most of his pastures. "In another month or six weeks of hot weather, the whole product should go mouse-brown and die, and it will take up to a year to recover," he said.
David Hamilton, a longtime friend of Roberts's, describes this year as among the worst in the 32 years he has been operating Greensward Turf Farm Inc. in Waldorf. The 100 acres he farms aren't irrigated, and when bad years drag on, less experienced farmers tend to jump ship.
But Roberts is too deeply rooted in the community to leave on a whim. He's been president of the company since 1983, and he shares his middle name with the neighboring city and his famous great-grandfather, former governor Oden Bowie. He can't remember when his family-owned farm belonged to anyone else. The farm used to grow tobacco before it began raising cattle, until the 1950s, when the late Eugene B. Roberts Sr. "became more interested in the grass underneath the cattle," Roberts said. Fairwood supplies sod to the Washington area, including the lawns of the Capitol, the White House and the Smithsonian museums along the Mall.
Roberts, who is a former president of the Bowie Chamber of Commerce, is known for his upbeat style and the trademark green cap he wears for every occasion. He walks with a bounce and whistles the first foreboding measures of Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" when he inspects his sod. He used to get hot and bothered by the weather's effect on the grass, but "now we just soldier through," he said.
Roberts attended Yale University, graduating in 1964 with a degree in American Studies. He also holds an MBA from the University of Chicago. He describes himself during his Yale years as "a plant out of place" and "a cultural dinosaur" who had to coax his professors to let him write a senior thesis on the history of animal husbandry in the United States.
But, Roberts acknowledges, "you can't be a dinosaur forever."
Over the past 10 years, Roberts and the 18 other family stakeholders in the business have decided they would have to yield to the pressures to develop.
Under a joint venture agreement with Columbia-based developer Rouse Co., the farmland will be developed into residential homes very slowly over the next couple of decades, he said.
"It's like the time when you have to put your mother in a nursing home," Roberts said. "The time comes." He declined to elaborate on the arrangement with Rouse, but said he will continue to farm the undeveloped land for the rest of his life.
When Roberts retires, he will be free of the burden of worrying about weather conditions, but it's a cross he would like to carry forever, if he could. Why, in the face of uncertainty, does he love growing grass?
His response: "I think Mr. Van Gogh found painting extremely difficult from time to time, but it's what he did for a living. And I like it."