Top of the Rock Golf Course
Top of the Rock Golf Course

College Breathes New Life into Arkansas’s Turf Industry

By Cody McKee

Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, just south of the Missouri border, lies Harrison, Ark. Harrison is a small, unassuming town of just over 13,000 people, and it is home to North Arkansas College. This small college in a small Arkansas town is about to make big waves in the sports field management industry. A program going into its second year at North Arkansas College is making an instant impact on sports fields and golf courses throughout Arkansas and southern Missouri. 

North Arkansas College is putting a unique spin on the traditional turf degree by offering its two-year associate’s degree in Turf Management as an apprenticeship program. Students in the program are not only going to school full time, but also working a full-time job at one of several golf courses and municipal parks departments in the area. 

The program takes its roots from the request of a local golf course group looking to find an avenue to staff its five golf courses located around Branson, Mo., which is located 30 minutes from North Arkansas College. Not only did they need to find entry-level employees to work on their courses, but also needed to be able to train employees to become future superintendents and assistant superintendents. From this need, the apprenticeship program was born. 

Arkansas is not known for being a powerhouse state in the turfgrass world. Currently, the University of Arkansas offers the only four-year turf degree program in the state, and North Arkansas College offers the only two-year program in Arkansas. This lack of educational opportunities has led to a limited supply of skilled workers. But the future is looking brighter. North Ark, as it is known locally, welcomed turf students to campus in the fall of 2020 for the first time. Eight students would be enrolled in the nation’s first associate’s degree apprentice program at a community college. While the program is also offered as a normal on-campus non-apprentice program, the apprenticeship aspect is what really makes it special. 

Apprentices will receive 288 hours of Required Technical Instruction (RTI), 4,000 hours of on-the-job training, complete two internships, and take a total of 60 credit hours of online instruction. The courses involved follow a traditional Turf Management path, with classes in soil science, weed science, horticulture and pest management; but there is a business management component as well. Classes in accounting, management and economics are also a required part of the coursework.

The program has also taken a different approach in how classes are scheduled, switching from a traditional semester schedule to block scheduling where new classes start every five weeks. According to Michelle Buchanan, lead instructor for agricultural-based programs, “When we switched from a semester look to a block schedule look, that really changed it to fit it in to what [the students] were doing.” Buchanan added that, “This is a program where life is happening for each of these people in the program… so moving to that block schedule was the first key component for our students that weren’t able to come on campus because they have the jobs, they have the things that are going on outside of being a full-time student.” 

The internship program is nothing short of cutting edge. North Arkansas College has partnered with several local sports teams, cities and golf courses to help meet this requirement. Teams such as the Northwest Arkansas Naturals and the Springfield Cardinals (affiliates of Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals, respectively) bring instant credibility to the internship program. 

Being the unique program that it is, there is also a non-traditional internship route. Internships for the full-time apprentices will consist of tasks and projects that can be completed on the job. These alternative internships are aimed at sports turf irrigation and drainage, as well as sports turf operations and management. Students must complete a variety of goals throughout a set internship period to receive credit as part of their coursework. 

North Arkansas College is not satisfied with just serving students interested in turf in their local region either. Mary Beth Hatch serves as the work-based learning coordinator for the school, and is already looking for ways to grow the program as it heads into year two. 

“We want people from all over the U.S. to be able to be apprentices in our program,” said Hatch. Hatch added that, even before COVID was a common word, the program was originally designed to be online so that it could reach as many people as possible. 

The original intent of the program was to be able to recruit high school students as apprentices and place them into open positions with partnering employers. With funding in place from the Arkansas Department of Labor, the college was not only going to be able to provide education and full-time jobs to recently graduated high school seniors, but also a path to help the students pay for their tuition as well. With this funding, any student who also qualifies for a Pell Grant would have his or her entire tuition covered. According to Hatch, “If you qualify for the Pell Grant or Federal Aid, it will cover it all… we’ve also not had a single student or employer have to pay anything out of pocket.”

Hatch added that those who receive Arkansas’s lottery funded scholarship have been able to pay for books, supplies and some living expenses as well. North Arkansas College also provides a variety of resources to its students to help them purchase laptops and other items to pursue their studies.

One apprentice who made the move from high school student to full-time apprentice was Keaton Brown. Brown always enjoyed being outside, and was looking for a way that he could make a living while also being outdoors. His apprenticeship placement with Big Cedar Golf was the perfect match. National sporting goods retailer Bass Pro Shops owns Big Cedar, so Brown was also able to get an employee discount to help him pursue his other outdoor passions. Brown has taken full advantage of the program since starting his new career. In a video posted to North Arkansas College’s YouTube page, Brown can be seen saying, “I get knowledge at school, and I get knowledge on my on-job training so I can instantly take what I’m learning on the job or at school and just directly put it to what I need.” 

Keaton Brown, student apprentice at North Arkansas College

When the coronavirus outbreak shut down schools in Arkansas in March of 2020, getting into a school to talk to students was no longer an option. So the staff at North Ark changed its focus to be able to provide the program to existing employees at several golf courses and parks and recreation departments throughout the state. This gave local employers a cost-effective avenue to up-skill their employees. 

Daniel Baxley, assistant parks director for the City of Benton, Ark., was one of the first to see the benefits that this could provide to his department. Baxley enrolled multiple members of his staff in the apprentice program. Benton, Ark., already has a reputation throughout the state for maintaining its athletic fields at a very high level (the city was awarded Athletic Field of the Year by the Arkansas Turfgrass Association in 2019 for its Riverside Soccer Complex). Even with already high standards, it did not take long for Baxley to see a change in his staff members who had taken up the apprentice program. 

“We have seen a big difference in how guys approach their tasks,” said Baxley. “They have become more aware of why we do certain tasks, and they are understanding more of our spray and fertilizing program. Their attention to detail has increased dramatically since starting the program.”

The City of Benton also saw the value that would be added to its turf management program by having more skilled staff in its ranks. The city is offering a $0.25 per hour raise after an employee completes the first year of the program and a $0.50 per hour raise after completion of an associate’s degree in the program. 

The future of sports turf is now much brighter in “The Natural State” than it has been in many years. North Arkansas College has plans to continue to expand its program. Enrollment for the fall of 2021 will be at least double the first year, with new students coming from around the area looking to serve as apprentices, including two from the City of Mountain Home Parks and Recreation Department, in Mountain Home, Ark. 

North Ark hopes that the momentum it has gained will continue to grow in the coming years. If the program continues to make the strides that it has in only its first year, it has the potential to become something truly special that will change the face of sports field management in the Ozarks and beyond. 

Cody McKee is the head of parks maintenance for the City of Mountain Home, Ark. McKee has spent the past 20 years working in turf management – first for his family’s residential lawn and landscape company before accepting his position with the Mountain Home Parks Department in February of 2020. He is a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University. McKee is a proud husband, father of three, and an avid outdoorsman. McKee manages more than 250 acres of parks for Mountain Home that includes 10 natural surface baseball and softball fields and nine soccer fields. He is also a member of the Arkansas Turfgrass Association, the National Recreation & Parks Association, and in 2021 began serving on the STMA Editorial Committee.