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Saturday, August 12, 2017

How green is your grass?

By Bob Plain in Rhode Island’s Future

Every greens keeper and lawn lover in America knows the name, or at least the work, of C. Richard Skogley. The famed University of Rhode Island plant science professor developed “URI #2” grass seed used for lawns across the nation and later convinced South County potato farmers to grow sod instead of crops.

Fewer know the name Greg Fales. But for 35 years he’s been the farmer tasked with tending to URI’s world-renowned experimental grasses and lawns. 

Fayles, URI’s last link to Skogley and the university’s turf heydays, retired on Monday.

“Tomorrow I’m going to wake up and have no place to go,” he told me on his last day at the farm. “It’s bittersweet.”

A lifelong Rhode Islander, Fales graduated from URI in the seventies with a degree in plant science. Campus was much different then. “It was a lot smaller,” he said. The expansive farmland on the western edge of campus – where the now-named Skogley Memorial Turfgrass Research Facility is located – was actually much larger, having lost some real estate to athletic fields and parking lots over the years.

“When I was a student here all these fields were in potatoes,” he said, motioning to the vast green fields URI now leases to local turf farmers. “Right around the time I graduated it all switched over to turf. All the local guys decided to grow turf. It was worth more money.”

Fales, who lives in rural West Greenwich near Arcadia, always knew he wanted to work the land. He said Helen and Scott Nearing’s seminal book “The Good Life” was an early influence. The Nearings were New York socialists who moved to Vermont in the 1930s to pioneer the back to the land movement.

“I read that book and that’s what put me in agriculture,” he said. “The big push in those days, after the Vietnam War, was being self-sufficient. There were a lot of doomsayers back then and I wanted to make sure I was one of the ones who survived.”

But Fales grew to love university life and he remembers fondly working with Skogley. “I was the guy who established the research trials, maintained them, collected data and helped in publishing the results,” he said. 

“I was a research assistant in the beginning, now they call me a research associate,” he said, not impressed by the title. “They call people who work at Walmart sales associates. I more or less worked with them rather than for them.”

He said the turf program has never fully recovered since Skogley’s departure in the early 1990s.

“When Skogley retired the plant breeding program pretty much faded away,” he said. “There’s less of an interest in turf management now. It’s all biotechnology. Even though there are a lot of sod farms in the state, the interest is lost.”

Despite the downsizing, Fales says the turf research facility still plays an important part in the history of URI. “This farm here is one of the oldest ones in the world as a turf research facility,” he said. “It had a lot of respect.”

He talks about grass like some people talk about roses or dahlias.

“There’s more to it than just growing it,” Fales said. “It’s the interaction between the grass plants and the interaction with the soils. We did a lot with soil amendments to try to improve the condition, more water holding capacity, different fertilizer rates, timing of fertilizer. We worked with a lot of fungi have an impact to the soil. That was done mostly in putting greens. We did a lot with putting green turfs here.”

And he can tell you everything about URI #2.

“It’s a blend of three types of grass that live in all conditions,” he explained: rye, Red Fescue, and Kentucky Blue grass. “So if you get a drought, the drought resistant strain will take over, if you give it a lot of water and fertilizer the really good stuff, the Kentucky Blue, will take over.”

“It’s excellent,” he said. “It’s the best you can get.”

Fales is 67, but he isn’t ready to retire. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in March, and his health is quickly deteriorating.

“I’ve lost my balance, my speech, I’m tired all the time, the medications don’t work for the particular type I have,” he said. “That’s really the reason I’m retiring. I can’t do what I used to do.”

He had always wanted to move to northern New England upon retiring to try to live deliberately like the Nearings, but his health has complicated those plans.

“It’s not what I planned to do,” Fales told me. “All my healthcare and everything is down here. I don’t want to go up there with everything that’s going on in my life right now.”

He can’t even hike in the woods anymore, a lifelong love of his. “I would love to but my balance and my walking is difficult,” he said. “I’ll trip over every rock and stick.” He’s a musician, and he’s slowly losing that, too. “I can still play bass with my illness, guitar is tough.”

There was little if fanfare or celebration marking Fales’ final day at URI’s once-famous turf research facility. President David Dooley nor the university communications department knew a loyal and somewhat legendary longtime staffer was punching the clock for the final time after 35 years.

I came to interview Fales and congratulate him on a job well done. I worked for him as an undergrad in the summer of 1995 and through the 1995-1996 school year. It was the first job I ever had outside of East Greenwich, the first (of many) farms I would work on, and the first place I learned to truly love and respect the outdoors. 

Greg was the first non-suburban role model I had in my life. The easiest way to explain how influential that was for me might be to link to this story I once got to write about Helen and Scott Nearing. I had a lot of great teachers at URI, one of them was a farmer.

Bob Plain is the editor/publisher of Rhode Island's Future. Previously, he's worked as a reporter for several different news organizations both in Rhode Island and across the country.