At Tuckahoe Turf Farms, sod is in the details

This article ran in USA Today last week.

They’re cutting big swaths of Kentucky bluegrass at Tuckahoe Turf Farm this week. On Wednesday they’ll load it on trucks for the drive 30 miles northwest to Lincoln Financial Field. It’s poetic that this bluegrass as new grass will arrive in Philadelphia by way of the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Whitman is our great American laureate of lawns. Leaves of Grass is his masterwork, although Tuckahoe’s turf is not so much a journey-work of the stars as for them.

Luminaries of the sports firmament play their games on grass grown here. The fabled frozen tundra at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and the green grass below the Green Monster at Boston’s Fenway Park started as seedlings on this South Jersey farm at the edge of Wharton State Forest.

James Betts, whose grandfather began the business, takes USA TODAY Sports for a spin around Tuckahoe’s 700 acres of cultivated turf grass on a recent late-autumn afternoon. Marley, his golden retriever, sits contentedly in the back seat of a dusty Ford F-150 as Betts points to places of interest all around this colossal expanse of the green, green grass of home.

“See that right there? That’s Citi Field” in New York, installed last week, Betts says. “And over there? That’s Pittsburgh” for Heinz Field, where new sod is in this week. “And there? We’re growing 11 acres for the National Mall in Washington,” matching the grass at Nationals Park.

Must be fun to watch games on TV and think all these fields of dreams are yours.

“Yeah, I used to get a big kick out of it,” Betts says. “But, honestly, I’m kind of used to it now.”

Walk around the turf farm and you don’t know from minute to minute precisely where you are. You could be in Hammonton, Waterford or Winslow — the three South Jersey towns the farm is in. And at any given moment you could be on treasured turf that might someday reside in any of more than a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia.

Betts says the farm once got a request for Bermuda grass from Saudi Arabia, but that was a bridge too far. The cousins (two sets of two brothers) who run this family business take orders mainly from the cooler climes of the Northeast, though they say they go as far west as Wisconsin, as far south as Virginia and as far north as Maine.

Roughly 25 miles to the east is the Atlantic Ocean, which millions of years ago provided the secret sauce for Tuckahoe’s turf. The Atlantic Coastal Plains were submerged under the ocean during the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods leaving behind the flat, sandy, acidic soils of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.

Turns out the large pores of sandy soil are a boon to drainage. Betts walks onto a section of grass with a tool that pulls up a narrow sheath several inches deep. He tugs at the grass on the top of the sample to show its strength and then shows off the sandy layer just below to highlight how quickly water moves through the soil profile.

Betts points to piles of additional sand for topdressing that’s used to create what he calls super-sod. That’s typically what big-time sports venues buy when they need to be game-ready quickly, as in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Penn State bought 70,000 square feet in October to re-sod Beaver Stadium, plus a nursery that’s used to repair any of its athletic fields.

“We use bluegrass on all of our projects,” Penn State’s athletic fields supervisor Herb Combs says. “It’s a cool-season grass. It doesn’t do well in long periods of warm weather. Quite frankly, you wouldn’t use Kentucky bluegrass in Kentucky.”

“I am the grass. Let me work.”

— Carl Sandburg

How does a turf farm market its turf? One answer is as simple as a soccer ball rolling straight and true: Tuckahoe allows the grass to sell itself.

Roughly 3,000 girls from 210 teams played soccer games on 35 fields here on a recent weekend and 189 college coaches came to see some of the top regional talent at the EDP Cup 2015 Winter Showcase.

“We had a ton of rain on Thursday and, look, the fields are perfect,” EDP president Steve Shilling says. “That’s the magic here.”

Betts says the idea behind having eight soccer tournaments on the farm per year is to let thousands see, smell and run on the product. There are many more high school fields and golf courses and parks than there are big-league teams. Some parents who attend these tournaments are on school boards or city councils. Some college coaches lobby their athletics directors.

“We kind of had an idea it could lead to sales, but it blossomed more than we expected,” Betts says. “We’re thinking outside the box to survive.”

Betts says the farm sold 26 million square feet of turf annually before the housing recession and that sales dropped over three years to 11 million square feet. Now, thanks in part to tournament marketing, sales have risen to 15 million square feet, he says, with annual revenue between $4 million and $5 million — 40% parks and ball fields, 10% retail and 50% new construction, including residential and commercial.

Alexa Gardner of the U-16 South Jersey Barons luxuriates on the lush grass, lying flat as she awaits a game. “It’s like a carpet,” she says.

“Kids feel pretty lucky to play here,” Oneonta (N.Y.) State coach Liz McGrail says.

Parents feel lucky too. Frank and Carolyn Summers say they prefer that their daughter Karinne, 14, play on real, rather than artificial, grass. “It’s so thick, and no bumps,” says Karinne of the Pipeline Soccer Club in Baltimore.

Shilling, who runs the tournament, can say the same of his grass at home in Kendall Park, N.J. He bought it from Tuckahoe. “The neighbors hate me,” he says, laughing.

“The grass may look greener on the other side, but believe me, it’s just as hard to cut.”

— Little Richard

Imagine keeping 700 acres of bluegrass and tall fescue neatly trimmed. Here it takes a full day on tractor-pulled, custom-made mowers that measure 50 feet across. And it takes two days to water it all with irrigation rigs that are 1,100 to 2,000 feet across.

There’s a picture in the company’s main office of founder Walter Betts using a handheld sod cutter in 1968. Today automated sod harvesters can cut one acre at 1-½ to 1-¾-inches thick in about two hours.

Walter Betts grew lima beans and cranberries before turning to sod in the late 1960s. His sons, Tom and George, bought the business in 1980. James Betts and his brother John, and David Betts and his brother Philip, bought it in 2005 and they divvy up duties: James is office management and sales, John is turf production, David is fleet manager and Philip is farm manager.

David Betts wears an Eagles shirt. Utley, his golden retriever, is named for Chase, the former Phillies star. The turf farm sits midway between Philadelphia and Atlantic City and more than a few of its 35 fulltime and seasonal employees are Philly fans. But ball caps representing clients, displayed high on the office walls, betray no favorites. Fredonia (N.Y.) State gets equal billing with Ohio State.

“They treat us like they do the big-league teams,” says Michael Morvay, director of grounds for the Class A Lakewood (N.J.) BlueClaws.

Super-sod is typically cut into big rolls of 120 square feet and loaded onto tractor-trailers that hold about 3,100 square feet. For faraway jobs, refrigerated trucks are driven by tandem drivers — one sleeps while the other drives, no stopping. But distance is no issue with the Philadelphia installation, expected to be finished Thursday or Friday, depending on weather.

Tony Leonard, the Eagles’ director of grounds, says he thinks of Tuckahoe Turf Farms as home away from home. The farm follows his specifications from seeding to feeding to flourishing to harvesting. He even visits from time to time. The grass grown for the Eagles belongs to them even before the first seed goes into the ground.

They grow home fields at Tuckahoe, then take them on the road where they find new life and growth under the cleats of home teams. Surely Walt Whitman would have approved. He once called baseball the hurrah game, with “the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere.”

Hurrah for grass.

And a grassing, too.