The SportsTurf Interview: Jerad Minnick, Natural Grass Advisory Group

In this “The SportsTurf Interview,” we meet Jerad Minnick, whose passion for natural grass is fueled by his role as lead advisor for the Natural Grass Advisory Group. Minnick, a long time sports turf manager, brings his on field experiences to his clients and into the classroom. Minnick holds a BS in plant science/turfgrass management from the University of Missouri and formerly was the director of field maintenance for the 22-field Maryland SoccerPlex just outside Washington, DC. He also has served as the director of field maintenance for MLS’s Sporting Kansas City. Minnick started his career at Kauffman Stadium with the Kansas City Royals as the manager of grounds.

SportsTurf: How did you first become involved in sports turf management?

Minnick: My love for high-use sports fields came out naturally when I was 12 years old when I built a makeshift baseball field in the pasture across the gravel road from our house. But I had no idea sports turf could be a career even during my first year in turf management at Mizzou. My goal then was to become the superintendent at a golf course in one of the small towns around our family farm. Fate and luck changed that though when my academic advisor took a call from Trevor Vance, head groundkeeper at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, who was inquiring about developing an internship program. As a life-long Royals fan, this sports-loving farm kid jumped at the chance to work on a Major League Baseball field. That was the first time I realized sports turf management could be a career.

ST: You know a lot of sports turf managers. What are they saying are the biggest obstacles to overcome for them to be successful today?

Minnick: Overall it seems turf managers see their biggest obstacles today being “too much play” and that “coaches and/or administrators do not understand what it takes to maintain a field.” But from the successes we see, the biggest obstacle for field managers is actually that they think those are their obstacles.

The managers having the most success and who are becoming the highest paid do not think that they have too much play. They are working pro-actively to manage the play and to bring new technology into their program to improve the fields. Their ability to get those new technologies comes with having strong, professional relationships with their coaches and administrators. They use data to justify spending. They have 5-year master budgets and master plans. They insert themselves into a suit and sit in executive meetings, even if they don’t really need to be there. No doubt we are in a time of transition in the industry, and the possibilities of the future are so exciting!

ST: What are your main responsibilities? And what does a regular working week entail, if there is such a thing?

Minnick: As Lead Advisor of NGAG, my #1 focus is always helping our clients. Recently we added a managing director, Julie Adamski, to lead the rest of our team and allow all of my time to be focused on clients and spent with our project managers. There certainly is no “regular” anything when it comes to a workweek! Having a Managing Director also allows time for me to work on up-scaling the NGAG field-testing and analytics program as we work to establish standards for playability, consistency, and safety for all natural grass surfaces.

With travel, a typical week for me includes a minimum of 3 days travel, by car or airplane, to be out face-to-face collaborating with clients. Traveling or not, my days all start at 5 am ET. No matter the time zone. At 5 am ET we are already “behind” as Europe is at least 5 hours ahead and Asia is 12-14 hours ahead. Early mornings are focused on client reporting and project plans. Mid-morning until mid-day is for meetings, both via phone and in-person. Then afternoon is for problem-solving the challenges of the day. We never pass-off on a challenge for “tomorrow.” The fields and field managers we support do not have “business hours.” Nor does Mother Nature. So it is important to hit all challenges head-on and find a solutions ASAP, especially with cool-season fields in the summer. It’s hard for people outside the turfgrass world to understand why cool-season sports field managers do not take vacation in the summer time. There are few challenges in this world like keeping cool-season turf alive during summer stress periods. Vacation just has to be put off until another time. But the busy nature of our work or the travel never gets old. Every day teaches us something new, as every day is full of new possibility for pushing the limits of high-use natural grass surfaces that are safer for athletes and that have a positive impactful on the environment. Those possibilities are endless. Those possibilities are amazing!

ST: Tell us about the Natural Grass Advisory Group; how did it get started, what are its goals?

Minnick: NGAG is an independent advisory and testing firm focused specially on high-use grass fields. We offer four services: analytics/surface testing; education on maintaining fields to take more use; advice for facilities dealing with high-use challenges; and project management for maintenance, renovation, and/or construction of high-use fields. Unless we have numbers and data to support our work, we are just providing our opinion, all our education is supported from our testing program, just as advisory and management are based in data as well. It does not matter how smart we think we are, it matters where the data guides us.

NGAG launched more than 3 years ago with a mission developed during my time as Director of Grounds at Maryland SoccerPlex. Out of necessity to meet use demand, our field management team re-wrote the book on high-use field maintenance and crushed the old “rules” about the amount of play grass could sustain. Even as field use time ballooned to 1000 hours + per field per year, SoccerPlex field quality continued to increase. Soil de-compaction was Focus #1, happening every 2 weeks as use never stopped. Small windows for renovation spawned us to adapt fraze mowing for the USA and stimulated us to go seed to play in only 35 days on a Kentucky bluegrass field.

We want to show that old “rules” re how many hours of use a natural grass field can sustain without being in disrepair are wrong. The possibilities for high-use fields and my love of a challenge spurred me to step away from the SoccerPlex to start Growing Innovations, a company that works with vendors on creating and expanding technologies for high-use grass fields. Then in May 2015, Natural Grass Advisory Group was born and our #GrassCanTakeMore mission launched.

ST: How do you keep up-to-date on emerging technologies and best practices?

Minnick: In short, we DON’T keep up with emerging technologies! Yes, it seems we are working well ahead on a lot. But every day we uncover technologies that have existed for multiple years. A great example is the plant activity sensor we map fields with. It looks and sounds space age. We collect plant activity/plant health in real time and can compare it to the health of the plants at any other given time. It allows traffic stress or disease to be diagnosed well before we see the change with our eyes. But it is NOT space age. The sensor has existed since 2003. Work was done on an athletic field in 2004. Similar was traditional fraze mowing, which was developed in 1999 in Holland. We didn’t start working with it in the USA in 2012 and still today people consider it “new.” But it is not.

To “discover” these things, we are asking questions. The beauty of science and technology is that things are always evolving. We try hard to keep an open mind, realizing we will never “know it all.” And even when we think we have it figured out, we still might not be right. Testing and data mapping alone has been extremely humbling as data diagnoses so many things that we thought we knew but actually have been wrong. We will never stop learning and evolving. It’s so exciting!

ST: What’s the best piece of turf management advice you have ever received?

Minnick: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Early in my management career, I was still extremely intimidated by all the numbers on a soil test report. So I still was relying on my sales reps to guide me with them. That combination kept my fertility approach essentially the same from year to year, no matter what the soil test said. During a grow-in, we could not get the sod to root onto a new sand-based field, even though we just kept throwing fertilizer at it. One night I was just staring at the roots and I asked myself “why will they start to grow, but then they will not grow DOWN into the sand. CLEARLY there was an issue in the sand and we needed to quantify it. We had a soil test already, but my sales reps were the ones who were breaking it down for me. I shared the test with an independent soil chemist who I hoped wouldn’t laugh at me too much for admitting I had no idea what it said. And sure enough, a pH of 8.8 was the serious limiting factor for rooting. We were throwing all this fertilizer at it and essentially wasting money because it was never going to root. The soil chemist did not make fun of me thankfully, and he changed the early course of my management career by encouraging me to embrace the soil test data instead of fearing it. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” he said. And how right he was! SO simple, yet SO profound.

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

Minnick: Do turf managers have time for things outside of work?! Ha ha. Fortunately I have not “worked” a day in my entire field management career. And my work crosses into my passions: 1) Leaving this planet in better condition than it was left to us, and 2) Improving the life experiences and opportunities that kids today have compared to ours in the past. High-use natural grass fields impact both of those things. And because our rescue dogs have each loved running around on grass, and because I am fortunate enough for NGAG to “take root” quickly where I get to travel and see the work, all of my passions outside of work tie in directly with my passion inside my work.