Take back your ball fields

By Joe Churchill

Author’s note: This article isn’t necessarily for you or about you. As a proud card-carrying member of the STMA, you understand the value of membership and its benefits. You belong to a local chapter, most likely get involved in regional and national STMA events, love to share ideas and network with your peers. You read this magazine faithfully and make every attempt to attend our National Conference when time and money permits. You’re a hands-on turf manager who is 100% invested in the health, appearance, performance and safety of your ball fields.

I have a favor to ask: share this article with a peer who is not an STMA member and relies on others to do their field work for them only because they think someone else can do it better. Sharing this message can help rejuvenate or repurpose a career by encouraging a fellow turf manager and friend to take back their ball fields.

These are the times we live in

We outsource everything these days. What can’t we buy online? Amazon just introduced PrimeNow, a 1-hour delivery service currently being rolled out in some major cities. You can actually buy ice cream online and have Amazon drop it off at your front door, before it melts. Yes, it’s come to that.

Chores like washing laundry, grocery shopping, house cleaning, exercising the family dog and mowing the lawn are all easy targets popular among consumers who claim they don’t have the time or don’t want to be bothered with such mundane and time-sucking tasks. My favorite? Hiring a service to harvest your dog’s “business” and dispose of it properly.

Outsourcing isn’t restricted to our personal lives. Many tasks for which we are responsible in our daily work can and should be outsourced. You probably don’t want to service your own HVAC system, perform major vehicles repairs or replace your sports field lighting. These tasks, and many others, are better left to professionals who know what they’re doing and have the right tools to do it.

What about general turf maintenance of your ball fields? Who mows, fertilizes, overseeds, aerates, topdresses and controls the weeds on them? The most common answer will be “I do.” As an STMA member, you see value in continuing education, networking with peers, monitoring industry trends and keeping up-to-date with ever-changing technology and product improvements. That’s why you renew your membership every year.

Unfortunately, this article’s message isn’t going to reach the thousands of sport turf managers who should read it. As an STMA member, you take pride and display tremendous passion for providing the best playing, best looking, healthiest and safest fields under the sun. Unfortunately, this work doesn’t come easily for all of us. When we don’t understand something, lack confidence or are short on the right tools or skill sets, it’s very tempting and easy to “hire out.” It’s easy to justify.

And these times are a-changing:

Bob Dylan sang about it more than 50 years ago. Change that is. Growing grass has changed in its own right during the past 50 years. It’s changed in the past 5. It’s changing as you read this. As professional turf managers, you face challenges today that weren’t there when you began your professional journey. How about these for starters:

Issue:                                                  Translation:

Low Input Sustainability                      Using less of everything while managing increased field quality expectations.


Water Conservation                            Mark Twain said it best, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.”

Pesticide Use Scrutiny                        Movement toward zero pesticide use. They are all poisons and create health concerns (real or perceived).


Nutrient Fate                                        Environmental threats associated with leaching and runoff. Zero phosphorous legislation and regulated nitrogen use.


Overused Ball Fields                           Extended Seasons + Lighted Fields = More Income


Impacts of Social Media                      “Piling on.” Real time bashing and inflammatory photo sharing.


Player Safety                                      The movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith, debuted last Christmas, raising public awareness to a highly charged issue.


Instant Gratification                             The “I want it when I want it and I want it now!” syndrome.


Helicopter Parents                               Johnny and Susie are both going to play professional ball someday.


These external pressures create internal issues at cities, schools, universities and private institutions. We live in a litigious society that prefers to point fingers and blame others rather than accept responsibility. This mindset is fueling the trend toward outsourcing darn near everything in the spirit of protecting ourselves and our cherished assets. We are never fully protected from falling prey to lawsuits, but it sure would be nice to “go down” with someone else, like an outside contractor. It’s not about eliminating the risk; it’s about managing it and sharing it.

And help is just a phone call away

Professional contractors are invaluable business partners. They are a godsend when there’s a job to do and you’re not in the position to do it yourself. There are lots of reasons to defer to others when tackling certain jobs.

  • You don’t know how or lack the skill set to do the job.
  • You don’t have the proper tools or equipment.
  • You’re short on manpower.
  • The contractor will work when you can’t or don’t want to (weekends, evenings, etc.).
  • It’s easier to bear the operating expense rather than hire additional employees, adding wages and benefits to the payroll.
  • The contractor can do it cheaper, faster or better than you can.

Jobs that may be favorable to outsource would be:

  • Aerating
  • Seeding
  • Topdressing
  • Winterizing irrigation
  • Snowplowing
  • Early spring and late fall work when seasonal workers are not available
  • Pesticide spray applications
  • Surface compaction testing

When specialized equipment is required to perform the work or the work that needs to be done doesn’t fit internal scheduling, it’s time to reach out to a professional contractor. They are highly efficient at what they do, can do it when you can’t and will help you deflect potential issues and conflicts associated with doing the job.

But what you get comes with a price

And we’re not just talking dollars and cents here. There are drawbacks to outsourcing ball field and grounds maintenance besides the direct cost of doing the work. There are compromises and concessions you’ll be making.

If you’re a hands-on sports turf manager (which 90% of you are), giving up the day-to-day maintenance of your ball fields by outsourcing isn’t in your DNA. Maintaining complete control of your sacred ground is paramount to everything else. You have the passion and work ethic to make a list of your management goals and to develop a detailed plan to carry them out. You’re not about to hand this off to someone else, no matter how shiny their tractors are or how highly regarded their work is.

Unless the work to be done falls within the true spirit of the list above, it is my belief that you should do the work yourself. It’s what they pay you for. It’s why you took the job in the first place. You may even make it a personal goal to learn additional skills and find resources necessary to purchase needed equipment, tools and labor moving some of these tasks off the contractor’s list and back onto yours. Keeping daily work in-house has its benefits:

  • You decide if a treatment (seeding, fertilizing, pesticide application, irrigation) or practice (mowing, soil testing, aerating, topdressing) needs to be done.
  • You decide what products are going to be used, how they will be applied, how much you’ll need and the frequency of their use.
  • You budget how much time it will take to do a thorough job and to do it right.
  • You develop a sense of ownership in your fields because they are a direct reflection of your talents and hard work.
  • You create a sense of pride and intimacy for your fields because of the countless hours and effort you have invested. You know when they are looking their finest and when there’s still work to do. You and your fields share a personality.
  • And maybe most importantly, you demonstrate your professional value. You show your superiors that you own the responsibility and can deliver results. You’re not just a scheduler with a list of contractors’ phone numbers.

Giving up control of your ball field’s basic maintenance practices creates dilemmas:

  • You’re at the mercy of someone else’s schedule. You need to plan around them.
  • The work may not be done by the proprietor, but rather by one of his seasonals or lightly experienced employees.
  • It’s not the contractor’s ball fields. They lack ownership. You’re one of many clients.
  • You’re relying on someone else’s judgment in the products being used on your fields.
  • You’re trusting someone else to put down the proper rate of seed, fertilizer, herbicide, etc.
  • You run the risk of not getting the job done properly or to your standards.
  • You give up control and put your own reputation into someone else’s hands.

And, to be fair, there are drawbacks to taking on the work yourself:

  • It may require capital investment to purchase equipment
  • You may need to hire another employee(s). Now you’re a people manager, too!
  • It requires a time investment. Longer work hours are ahead.
  • You will be assuming 100% of the responsibility. No one else to blame.
  • You will need to invest more time learning new skills via continuing education classes, online research and relationships with academia and suppliers.

As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, I’m most likely preaching to the choir here. As an STMA member, you take a pro-active approach to the smallest detail associated with the care, performance and safety of your ball fields. Yet you may be outsourcing more turf management work than you should, perhaps because you’ve always let someone else to the work. Or perhaps because the money is available, or maybe because you’re comfortable trusting others to do the work or perhaps there’s an air of higher status connected to it. Kind of like the guy who has someone else picking up his dog’s poop.

We all get a bit complacent in our jobs. I’m as guilty as the next guy. We start looking for shortcuts and easier ways to get the job done. We depend more on others and ask less of ourselves. Case in point: over my 25 years working with sports turf managers from K-12 to the professional level, I have made it a point to ask those who outsource their fertility and weed control applications if they knew what products were being used on the ball fields and how much was being applied. To this day I have yet to talk to one manager who could tell me. Wouldn’t you rather be in the position to share the answer immediately rather than say, “I’ll check and get back to you”? What answer sounds better? What answer gives the supervisor or parent asking the question a better feeling of who’s in control?

Maybe it’s time you give serious thought to how you use your contractors. Maybe it is time to give serious thought to honing your own turf management skills and to take back your ball fields.

Joe Churchill is branch manager/sports turf specialist for independent turf product distributor Reinders, Inc., in Plymouth, MN and a member of STMA’s Editorial Committee.