The SportsTurf Interview: Mary Owen

This month in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we visit with Mary Owen, Extension Specialist, Turf, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Owen is one of the most well known and respected turf extension specialists in the country and has a long association with the Sports Turf Managers Association.

SportsTurf: What are the most important changes you’ve seen in sports turf management in your career?

Owen: The explosion of technological innovations must head the list here, as it most likely would relative to most other industries.

The expansion of the professional sports turf managers’ network around the country and even across the globe has been phenomenal, in no small part due to the leadership and tone set by STMA. All members of the industry are benefitting in meaningful ways, as are related professions including builders, coaches, athletic directors and others.

Research specifically targeting sports turf has burgeoned. A lot of very sharp minds at universities and elsewhere across the country are tackling difficult problems, finding solutions that can be used from small town school departments to international level professional sports. Look at the breadth of topics being investigated: from determining nutrients’ impact in integrated management of pests, to developing models for managing municipal and school fields with no pesticides, to evaluating synthetic surfaces for optimum human and environmental safety, to breeding new and improved cultivars of grasses specifically suited for sports turf, to use of sophisticated lighting systems to increase turf potential. And more!

The federal government has given a nod to turfgrass as an important component of our environment and deserving of financial support, thanks to the tireless efforts of the National Turfgrass Federation (NTF) and many in the industry. Turfgrass is now considered an eligible entity in the Specialty Crop Research Program enabled in the Farm Bill. This is significant. It means that the door is now open for turfgrass researchers across the country to compete for federal dollars. In the past few years about $15 million has been distributed in research grants and other awards for turfgrass work. The development of the National Turfgrass Research Initiative (NTRI), the funding of turfgrass research staff at USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) labs in Beltsville and Utah, and more recently the implementation of the Grass Roots Initiative in partnership with the National Arboretum are all very positive developments. These efforts show a commitment shared by the public and private sectors to enhance and communicate the benefits of turfgrass to the world. STMA, I am happy to note, is a major sponsor of the NTF as well as the Grass Roots Initiative.

SportsTurf: Working in a university extension program you meet a lot of turf managers. What are they saying are the biggest obstacles to overcome for them to be successful today?

Owen: Some of the biggest challenges turf managers are facing today: overcoming the mistaken public perception of turf as being less than environmentally desirable; adapting to regulations, some reasonable and others not; being able to offer a level of compensation competitive enough to attract and keep qualified, passionate people in sports turf; and, perennially stretched and strained budgets. Sports turf managers are facing these challenges head-on, both as individual, knowledgeable professionals and in dedicated teams, making good headway in some areas and determinedly persevering even when the odds seem stacked against them.

SportsTurf: How has social media impacted your work?

Owen: Social media has opened up incredible new avenues for communication, collaboration, networking, career building, education and more. I believe the potential for information exchange is enormous, but will readily admit that I am less than fully engaged. Some challenges for me: to quickly and definitively sort the chatter from the substantial; to keep messages brief and speedy without sacrificing accuracy; and to be in control of the medium and not allow it to control my workday.

SportsTurf: How do you think the natural turf vs. synthetic turf issue will play out over the next decade?

Owen: I believe that the controversies and problems will be sorted out.

Personally I prefer natural grass. There is no completely adequate substitute for it. The sports turf industry must continue to look for innovative ways to keep natural grass playing surfaces as dense, safe fields. Looking beyond the edge of the horizon to see what is new, what is adaptable, what works—like using fraze mowing for rapid renovation—should be high on the priority list.

Yet there are certainly situations in which using a well and thoughtfully designed artificial surface make good sense. When a synthetic field is suggested, a complete and realistic comparison should be done with a comparable natural grass field so that decisions are made based on facts not feelings. Human safety and environmental protection should always be key priorities. STMA has been a leader in providing information to assist with that process. And STMA will continue to need to provide good education for sports turf managers in the construction and care of all kinds of fields.

All that said, I do have a synthetic surface pet peeve: people who use the word “turf” to generically describe artificial surfaces. I just wish they’d cut it out. Let’s use the word “turf” for what it is, the real thing.

SportsTurf: What should be the aim of the profession and industry in the next 10 years?

Owen: We must continue to be leaders by example: in the protection of precious and limited environmental resources, particularly water and soil; in bettering the health of our communities by providing safe playing areas for athletes of all ages and abilities; and by being optimistically skeptical about new ideas and innovations while embracing those that show promise. We must continue to build strong partnerships amongst researchers, educators, practitioners and businesses, in both the public and private arenas. We must continue to encourage sports turf managers to be professionals of the highest caliber, and can demonstrate this particularly through the Certified Sports Field Manager program. We must continue to grow the SAFE Foundation for its championship of scholarship, to ensure that bright, energetic and passionate students are encouraged and rewarded as they become our next generation of leaders.

SportsTurf: How has your career benefitted from being a member of STMA?

Owen: Through STMA I have had the opportunity to meet and work with a host of intriguing, clever, committed and otherwise terrific people, many of whom have become lifelong dear friends and every one of whom has been a teacher to me in one way or another.

I am especially grateful to those sports turf managers and business people who are out there doing the hard field and management work every day, and who, with their enduring and good humored patience, answer my many, many questions and basically keep me grounded in reality. Their generosity has made me, I believe, much more effective in my work as an Extension Specialist and educator.

SportsTurf: What are your passions and interests outside of work?

Owen: What do I like to do outside of work? Tend my kitchen garden, help my husband, Tom, with his retail farm business, and delight in our wonderful grown children and the rest of our family. I read real books, the kind with pages that can be turned; histories of the great American presidents and selected 20th century authors have been my recent choices. I love to go to yoga class, and would very much like to say that I practice every day but that would be stretching the truth, instead of myself, just a bit too far. And believe it or not, I enjoy mowing the lawn!