Growing their own fields: the new normal for professional sports turf facilities

By Joe Traficano, CGCS

Top quality turf is no longer just a luxury for Super Bowls or championship games. Many college and professional sports turf facilities around the world now demand high-end surfaces; one way they get what they want is to custom grow their fields at sod farms.

Grant Trenbeath, head groundskeeper of the Arizona Diamondbacks, started the trend of custom growing his own fields at the sod farm before the team’s 1998 inaugural season. As the first ballpark with a retractable roof, Bank One Ballpark (now Chase Field) needed to be prepared.

“It’s important to me to have a fully dedicated nursery at the farm that has the exact sand base we have at the ballpark, and that is what we did. That first year was certainly a learning year. Of course we have it down to a science now. I want to give the grass we have in the ballpark every advantage we can to succeed, but it is inevitable that we need to replace areas throughout the season. And with events during the off season, it’s necessary for us to replace the field every year before Opening Day, which for us is a big advantage,” Trenbeath says. “I can go out to the nursery and make sure that the field is being grown exactly to my specifications, and make adjustments if I feel the need. We’ve had our own field out there [at West Coast Turf] for years. It’s been such a success for us that I cannot imagine doing it any other way,” he says.

The demand for higher end fields has now become so popular that this year West Coast Turf (WCT) created my position to focus solely on sports turf customers. (I had been a longtime sales manager for WCT.) We’re refocusing on this college and professional stadium customer, and are providing more hands on technical support during harvest, installation, and grow in.

To accomplish this goal, it starts with the customer meeting at the farm with the salesperson, farm manager, and management coordinator to discuss what variety is preferred. Once grass is selected it will be nurtured and held in inventory until time of harvest. Once the turf is selected they will discuss height of cut, fertilization schedule, and any cultural practices necessary to keep grass in top condition so it will be ready when needed. Several more visits will take place, but a month before harvest the group will gather and walk the field to make any changes and confirm all details of project.

On the day of the harvest either the WCT salesperson or the WCT management coordinator will be on site with the farm manager to provide quality control over the harvest, making sure the correct thickness is consistent throughout the process and any unacceptable grass is left behind. Once the sod is loaded, the WCT salesperson and WCT management coordinator will be on site to supervise the installation of the sod. This process in some form will be used on all sports fields, not just for the high-end customers. We recommend to anyone planning on getting sod to make a visit out to the farm not only to see the grass, but to learn the entire process from growing to installation.

We’ve learned valuable information due to our involvement in other projects, such as seven Super Bowls and numerous championship and World Series games, which is then passed along to our customers. It is also pretty standard these days to re-sod between the hash marks or sometimes an entire field mid-season, or for playoffs in football. It didn’t used to be that way. We do it on a regular basis now, and we are prepared with the right turfgrass for that situation.

WCT frequently has their high end customers out at the farm. Luke Yoder of the Padres (and his dogs Tucker and Torrey), Clay Wood of the Oakland A’s, Will Schnell of the Rose Bowl, Eric Hansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Barney Lopas of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Kyle Waters of the StubHub Center, Matt Greiner of the San Francisco 49ers, Greg Elliott of the San Francisco Giants, Brian Johnson from Arizona State, Nick Cole of UC Berkley, Kevin Moore from Stanford Stadium, and Kore Higuchi for UC Davis are among the several turf professionals that can be found out the farm on any given day.

Will Schnell is the perfect example of that extremely meticulous customer, and he isn’t afraid to say it. He makes many visits out to the sod farm in preparation for his big games. “My timeframe (to switch out his field) is so short that I have to make sure my sod is dialed in perfectly,” says Schnell. “I go out and check thatch levels, take soil and tissue samples, and make sure there is a backup plan in case there are any complications. Every turf manager likes their turf different. I want to go out there to the farm and see what it looks like for myself. I could call and ask, and someone could say ‘It looks great!’ but then I’d be shooting blind. I have 2 acres of grass out there that I am going to put down. Sometimes I want a fungicide, sometimes I don’t. My requirements vary. Sometimes I need to change the moisture to match my needs at the stadium.”

When asked what part of the process was most important, Schnell did not hesitate. “Relationships,” he replied. “Specifically my relationship with Larry Contreras (WCT’s Southern California farm manager). Sales people are awesome, but the most important guy out there is the guy that is out there every day growing the grass and that is Larry. The turf guys need to know the farmer. He’s been out there growing the grass for the last 12 months. Yes, I’m particular—but it’s the Rose Bowl. I have to be.”

The Padres’ Luke Yoder has made a habit of coming out to the farm for years, only now he brings his two trusty assistants, Tucker and Torrey, who happen to fall into the canine category. “The main reason I go out to the fields is because it makes the dogs happy,” Yoder jokes. “They are out at the ballpark with me every day (since PETCO is where the lucky pups go!), and they know what they are looking for, so of course I take them to pick out the sod.

“I start out looking for a very mature bermuda. We have an extremely tough transition time, and we need to give our grass a fighting chance. We battle May gray and June gloom, so our bermuda doesn’t really start kicking in until July and August. So transition is important,” Yoder explains. “I walk the whole field because I need to be sure it is even. If I order ¾-inch cut sod I can’t risk it being uneven. I can’t flatten it out on the field that fast. I also want just a decent overseed. Nothing heavy.”

Clay Wood of the Oakland Athletics is also a firm believer in being very hands on. “We re-sod every year because we have Monster Truck and Super Cross, “Wood said. The Coliseum is also the only dual professional baseball and football facility left, which makes his turfgrass situation even more complicated than most.

“My timeframe for baseball is really tight. I only have about 3 weeks to get the field ready for Opening Day. My goal when I am out at the farm is finding the most established sod. I need to start my field with a strong stand of mature bermuda with a strong stand of rye. I need the sod to have the stability to stand on its own and sustain itself if need be. With our chances of inclement weather here, I can’t take a risk. I like to be able to walk the fields. These days you can get a text photo of the field and it looks great, but I need to get out there and talk to Larry. We’ll talk herbicide, and fertilizer, and I’ll walk the field looking for any weeds. It’s hard to explain. I think it’s just a groundskeeper thing,” Wood said. “I need to know exactly what to expect when I receive that sod. And let’s hope they keep Luke’s dogs off my section.”

So it seems the sod farm managers have the most pressure to perform. Larry Contreras, WCT’s Southern California farm manager, has been in the business for almost three decades. “I actually like to have the guys come out and inspect the fields on a regular basis. On their first visit we establish which field they like best. All of the managers are different and have unique needs. Some like a very dense bermuda base and a light overseed. Others only care about a strong base and a great looking grass. One customer wants a dense bermuda, yet a heavy overseed. Once they choose their section I can make the corrections and adjust accordingly to their wants. We have intense customers out here, and then a few more mellow ones. But they all want the identical end result—a strong safe field that looks great at the same time. We do our best to be sure they get that and there are no surprises,” Contreras said. As for Luke’s dogs? “I just let them go. They are so happy and excited to be out there that I’d never say a word.”

This article was written by Joe Traficano, CGCS, sales and corporate sports turf specialist for West Coast Turf, Tempe, AZ.