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Saturday, October 19, 2013

If you must have a lawn...

By RUDI HEMPE/ecoRI.org News contributor
SLOCUM — Sod farming has taken some critical hits over the years. Besides the aversion in some corners to planting monocultures, critics have accused sod farmers of using too much fertilizer and too many pesticides, and for contributing to soil erosion.

But in the sweeping flat fields of this bucolic section of Rhode Island, a revolution has been taking place the past few years, one that is unique not only to the state but also to the Northeast.

At 500 acres, Sodco Inc. is the largest contiguous farm in the state. Originally, the property was a potato farm, but like most other Rhode Island potato farms its owner, the late Winfield Tucker, grew tired of the vagaries of the potato market and converted the sweeping fields to growing turf for the burgeoning housing market.

It was a booming business, and while Rhode Is
land-grown turf ended up in some high-profile places such as Fenway Park, it was the housing market that kept sod growers in the black.

But the housing construction decline of several years ago changed that rosy picture. Some sod farmers decided to convert to other crops. Some went out of business. At Sodco, owner Linda Tucker sat down with her staff in 2009 and started thinking about alternatives.

“The downturn in the economy provided us with a great opportunity to think about our next moves,” she said.


The first thing Sodco did was to plow under 70 acres of sod, so it didn’t have the economic drain of maintaining that much unsold inventory.

Pat Hogan, Sodco’s longtime sales manager, said the business explored ideas such as growing lettuce and establishing community gardens, but ultimately settled on growing corn — not sweet corn to eat but corn for burning in pellet-type stoves.

The corn is left in the field to dry out as much as possible. It’s harvested by a towering combine that cost $300,000 new but was bought from a troubled farm in Nebraska for $50,000. The combine strips the kernels from the cobs and the rest of the plant is chopped and returned to the soil as an organic amendment — the soil in Slocum is Bridgehampton loam, considered one the best agricultural soils.


A storage and drying facility dries the kernels even further, and then the material is sold in three ways — in bulk, in 40-pound bags and by the ton. It can be used as animal feed and in multi-fuel pellet stoves. Hogan said he heated his house last winter with $530 worth of corn. Sodco offers advice to customers on the types of stoves that work best with corn.


Cover crops

At the same time Tucker decided to delve into corn, she hired John Eidson, a longtime self-employed turf farmer, as farm manager. He has since ushered in an era of more sustainable sod farming by using beneficial cover crops such as sorghum — aka Sudan grass — rye, hairy vetch, oats and even peas.

The cover crops are planted according to a complex formula that involves the projected need for sod, weather factors and the seasons. Cover crops amend the soil between sod harvests and, contrary to common perception, the harvesting machines that Sodco uses slice the sod root zone cleanly. Studies conducted by the University of Rhode Island and others have shown that soil loss is minuscule, according to Hogan.

Sodco’s harvester cuts, rolls and packs the sod onto pallets. The one-operator machine replaces six workers.

Using cover crops and modern machines has resulted in savings in fertilizer, herbicides and irrigation, Hogan said. On a recent visit, the sorghum was about 8 feet high in one field. It will be chopped by machine and then tilled into the soil. As it decomposes, it creates a fumigant that controls some undesirable soil organisms.

The huge irrigation rigs Sodco uses are computer controlled and can be set to deliver precise amounts of water as they roll across the fields. They are powered by electric motors. Sodco has its own water supply, wells and ponds. “We don’t water unless we have to,” Hogan said.

Sodco uses other environmental practices to save money. Its main buildings are heated by corn-burning pellet stoves, larger than the standard homeowner types. The garage, where the farm’s machines are maintained, is heated by a waste-oil burner — the oil is collected year-round from the farm’s machinery.

Those systems are not that visible. What is visible when one drives up to the complex of farm buildings are roofs studded with dozens of 1-foot-diameter plastic domes. These are solar light tubes that transmit light to the interior offices and garage spaces. On a recent cloudy day, the light transmitted inside by the tubes eliminated the need for electric lights. Tucker said her electric lighting bill has been cut by 20 percent by using the solar tubes.

New turf


But the big sustainable news at Sodco is a new venture that came about almost by accident. The company had a lot of business on Nantucket, where wealthy homeowners enjoy expansive lawns of bluegrass. Some island residents started questioning the heavy use of fertilizers and water to keep those bluegrass lawns looking pristine. They were concerned about the impact on the island’s groundwater.

Most lawns in the Northeast are bluegrass or composed largely of bluegrass. The problem with that is bluegrass demands heavy fertilization and irrigation. Besides its desirable color, bluegrass is favored on athletic fields because it heals quickly.

But a growing number of communities, such as Nantucket, are concerned about the harm being done to groundwater supplies. Some communities have banned fertilization for several months.

Sodco had a solution for Nantucket — a type of grass called turf-type tall fescue. Developed from the lowly clumpy pasture grass, turf-type tall fescue varieties now have a desirable color, stand up to heavy use and, when established, require 30 percent to 50 percent less fertilizer and water than bluegrass.

“Tall fescue roots go down four feet in the right soils,” Hogan said. As a result, they can easily survive drought periods.

Sodco didn’t have a problem growing tall fescue, but it did have a problem harvesting it. Bluegrass plants cling together when harvested. Fescue doesn’t, so Sodco developed a fescue formulation that includes small amounts of perennial rye and bluegrass so it can be harvested without using netting. Once established, the bluegrass component is overwhelmed — wiped out by lack of excess fertilization.

Sodco has shipped 80 acres of tall fescue to Nantucket, and other customers are lining up, including golf courses, which like the low-cost maintenance, the savings in water and fertilizer and the fact that the grass doesn’t creep into areas where it’s not wanted such as bunkers.

Currently Sodco’s turf fields — the ones not undergoing cover crop or corn rotations — are 40 percent tall fescue and 60 percent bluegrass.  Tall fescue costs 2 cents more a square foot than bluegrass.

Tall fescue is the sod of the future, Hogan said.