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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Do South County farmers need to grow sod to stay in farming?

Rhode Island's Top Crop is Sod, But Would Prime Farmland Be Better Used to Grow Food?

Photos and text by ANNIE SHERMAN/ecoRI News contributor

Rhode Island-grown turf has been installed at McCoy Stadium, a practice field at Gillette Stadium and a host of golf courses, among many other places.

If you mow it, water it, fertilize it, dethatch it in springtime and lament its dead spots in the heat of summer, you know your lawn can be a chore to maintain. And whether yours is meticulously grown from seed or laid down as sod, most likely you are pretty proud if it’s the best lawn in the neighborhood.

It is a point of pride for the state, too. Rhode Island sod is integral to the state’s agricultural economy. Rhode Island-grown turf has been installed at Fenway Park, the White House and the 2004 Athens Olympics. It’s also placed around McMansions. Its 3,300 acres, mostly in South County, account for a substantial chunk of all sod grown in New England. The smallest state ranks 26th in the nation in sod production.

Sod offers environmental benefits, according to those who farm it, such as erosion and air pollution control and ambient air temperature reduction. Consumer demand also has encouraged many producers to reduce water consumption and fertilizer and herbicide use, and cultivate sod that is drought resistant.

The farming of sod, however, isn’t without its detractors and controversy, especially with growing efforts to get Rhode Island to produce more food locally. Much of the sod grown in Rhode Island is on some of the best agricultural soils in the state.

This situation has some, such as Rick Enser, a retired ecologist who worked for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management for nearly three decades, wondering if it would it make more sense for Rhode Island to grow food in the quality soil currently growing turf.

Less than 5 percent of the food consumed in Rhode Island is grown or raised locally.

He told ecoRI News the people of Rhode Island “should be appalled that the best soils are not used to grow food, but lawn,” which, he said, has “a biodiversity value just north of an asphalt parking lot.”

“But turf is far more lucrative, and the irony should not be lost on anyone in Rhode Island, a state that ostensibly is trying to find ways to increase the amount of in-state food production,” said the former South Kingstown resident who moved to Vermont a few years ago. “But the state has a big interest in ensuring the continuation of its biggest agricultural cash cow.”

It is estimated nationwide that turfgrass lawns cover 62,500 square miles of ground, more than 31 times the size of Delaware, according to a University of Delaware white paper from March 2010.

“Most lawns are simply too big to be useful, with high maintenance costs, minimal wildlife value, low aesthetic interest, and negative environmental impact,” reported the paper.

Pat Hogan, left, sales manager for Sodco, is a 39-year veteran off the turf farm industry.

While there can be a trade-off between growing any crop other than food, especially in a depressed economy, turf farming advocates contend that having active farms is better than having no farms at all.

“Sod is the largest single commodity in the state. Its greatest asset, its greatest legacy, is that it has provided economic viability for farms that might have gone out of business,” said Michael Sullivan, former director of both DEM and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency and professor emeritus of turf management and plant science at the University of Rhode Island. 

“But it’s not without controversy. There are those who believe that soil is leaving [the state], that it’s pesticide intensive, and those criticisms are not objective.

“There are those who wonder if it should be grown for food. I think if you have a commodity, you should grow it. The idea that you can’t grow sod and you have to grow vegetables is not the way the system works. They’re competing in a tight market. … And the last crop on farms is house lots.”

Indeed, that was a major concern for the sod industry here 60 years ago. While it has boomed recently thanks to increased demand from quarantined homeowners, sod began in an era of desperation and financial uncertainty.

Most of Rhode Island’s sod farms were growing potatoes in the 1950s, and foretold a declining market for that starchy vegetable, Sullivan said. They pivoted to this alternate, more lucrative, crop to stay viable, and within 15 years, sod had become the cash cow of the state’s agricultural trade, while saving the land from potential development, according to Sullivan.

“A good potato crop would bring $800 per acre, while sod yields $1,200 to $1,500 per acre,” he said. “Any business person will go where a better profit can be made, especially if they love the life of farming and are fighting to keep the land.

“Today we have two or three potato farms that grow for places like Dave’s Marketplace or Belmont Market. But it’s not even 500 acres, while we have more than 3,000 acres of sod. Average sod farmers employ 30 to 40 people just on production, including harvesters, delivery and mowing, so it’s a significant trade.”

The commodity is also uniquely suited to South County, according to Gary Sykes, executive director of the Aquidneck Island-based New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation. He noted the landscape is relatively flat, it is near the coast but shielded by surrounding trees to supplement moisture, URI hosts the country’s oldest turfgrass research facility, and with 950 golf courses in New England, including more than 50 in the Ocean State, the recreation opportunities provide plenty of resources for sod-makers.

Rhode Island’s 3,000-plus acres of turf have an annual value of about $32 million, according to URI’s Turfgrass Research program. It was established in 1892 with some of the earliest turf fertilizer trials in the country, and grew into the current turf management program.

A harvester collects turf at Sodco’s 526-acre farm in North Kingstown. Among its customers is the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

 Potatoes yield to grass

On a Monday in June at Sodco, a 40-year-old business in the North Kingstown village of Slocum, harvesters and heavy machinery were in the fields, hauling up the lush-green blanket of sod around them. Much of it is sold to Home Depot, the TV program “This Old House” and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.

Meanwhile, local landscapers were arriving to pick up truckloads of premium bluegrass, microclover and bentgrass varieties for their residential customers.

Once the highest yielding potato farm per acre in the world during World War II, Sodco pivoted to sod in the 1970s, according Pat Hogan, a 39-year industry veteran and Sodco’s sales manager. The operation is now one of the largest farms in the state.

The company is also an innovator in sod management and sustainability, Hogan said. In 2015, the company began growing a low-water, no-fertilizer or herbicide crop called Microclover Black Beauty, a tall fescue varietal that has become Sodco’s most popular product.

Hogan said customers appreciate its weed resistance and drought tolerance. The company has consistently increased acreage of Black Beauty, from 5 acres to more than 300, while reducing bluegrass from 300 acres to 70.

With bluegrass, the roots go down 6-8 inches, Hogan said. With Black Beauty, roots potentially descend 4 feet, and once it is established, it uses 30 percent less water.

“We don’t water unless absolutely necessary, and our water irrigation system is close to the ground so it’s more efficient and gets the water right where it needs to be,” Hogan said.

With the increase in Black Beauty production comes reduced fertilizer use, he added. In 2008, Sodco used 5-7 pounds of it per 1,000 square feet annually; it now uses 2.4 pounds per 1,000 square feet.

“We have cut down in spending for pesticide and herbicide, but we’re spending more on organic products,” Hogan said, “and we’re trying to be more environmentally friendly.”

While Sodco’s 526 acres of prime soil largely grow sod, Hogan noted the company also grows corn for burning in residential pellet stoves. He said the turf farm also grew more than 4,000 pounds of sweet corn and tomatoes last year, which it donated to Hope’s Harvest RI. It experimented with 45 acres of hemp in 2019, but planted none this year because of an evaporated marketplace.

“When we were as busy as we were last year, why put in a questionable crop when we know sod is reliable?” Hogan said of the hemp effort. “In the meantime, we are changing the way people think about sod.”

More than 3,000 acres of Rhode Island farmland is used to grow a variety of grasses.

Voluntary efforts

During the past decade, golf courses, landscapers, turf farmers and universities have participated in DEM’s voluntary Green Golf Course Certification Program, hoping to curb their impacts on the environment.

The program, which is designed to reduce pollution and the use of water, fertilizer and pesticides, is working, according Ann Battersby, a senior environmental scientist with DEM.

Between 2011, when the program started, and 2017, participating businesses reduced the amount of fertilizer they used by 242,000 pounds, water by 373 million gallons and pesticides by 540 pounds and eliminated the equivalent of nearly 1,430 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

But there is much more to do, Battersby said.

“Like many other areas in the country, we have a nutrient issue in some of our waterbodies, which causes algal blooms and poor water quality,” she said.

“Fertilizer is not regulated in Rhode Island, and we can’t regulate homes that use fertilizer, so we are trying to proactively work with businesses to manage fertilizer use, become cognizant of water and fertilizer use, and of their environmental footprint.”

That sentiment for reduction and conservation extends across the industry, from sod farms to golf courses, according to Sykes. He noted a 2,500-square-foot sodded area creates enough oxygen for a family of four.

Battersby said native, drought-resistant grasses produce nitrogen through their root systems, so they require less fertilizer.

Lawns and the effort to maintain them, however, also generate tons of fossil-fuel pollution.

Sodco is one of 11 Rhode Island sod farms that have sold development rights to some of their property.

Diversified farm stand

At South County Farms Inc. in South Kingstown, sod and vegetables partner again on about 300 acres that the Partyka family has been sowing for three generations.

As all farms do, this one evolved with changing consumer demand, Mother Nature and the economy, said Sarah Partyka, who manages the operation’s adjacent Farmer’s Daughter retail business. Her father, John, still runs the farm with other family members.

“It’s all about diversity. We have turf, vegetables and berries, pumpkins and Christmas trees,” Partyka said.

“When there was a banking crisis and the economy tanked, we switched to vegetables because it was important to grow food, and we put a lot of our sod land into hay. But now sod has picked up, and we have turned more land into sod. The sod is what is viable right now.

“We are battling forces that are out of our control, so we have to grow things that are economically feasible for us to keep the land. But in my father’s heart, and he has instilled it into me, is that we have to take care of the land. We are stewards of the land. And that is the key, to keep it undeveloped.”

Protecting prime agricultural land is a goal of most, if not all, farmers, as well as many of those in state government, which is why they say sod is an important crop. Planting different crops keeps farms going until they need financial assistance, at which point some farms consider selling the development rights to their land.

DEM’s Farmland Preservation Program offers just such a safety net, using state and federal money under the Farmland Protection Policy Act to buy farms’ development rights.

Sodco is one of 11 sod farms to participate, having sold development rights to 395 acres. In total, some 1,440 acres of Rhode Island turf farm have been protected from future development, according to DEM.

“Demand outstrips the amount of money available, but I’m glad for it to be appropriated, and since 1981, we have 8,095 acres protected,” said Ken Ayars, chief of DEM’s Divisions of Agriculture. “In the early years, Rhode Island was one of first states to have this program, which tends to be in the states with the highest development pressure. It followed a period of intense farmland loss, which Rhode Island experienced.

“We don’t look at the crop. What we care about is that it’s a viable working farm, and are they stewards of the land. We look at agricultural viability, soil quality, proximity to other protected farms, and water protection, among other variables.”

Rhode Island’s reputation as the sod capital of the Northeast may be surprising to those who consider sod an expensive solution to a perfect lawn. But to the farmers who cultivate it, it is a vital crop that saved a once-struggling agricultural sector.

“It’s such a valuable crop, and we are lucky to have it,” Partyka said. “Things have changed. Look at dairy. We used to be a big dairy state, and potato. It all changed.”

ecoRI News staffer Frank Carini contributed to this story.