U.S. Sod Checkoff is striving to “Bring Grass to Life”
Sod producers in the United States have been discussing the benefits of creating a sod checkoff since 1996, but only in recent years have there been more intentional discussions around how the industry can begin that process. Agricultural research and promotion programs, or “checkoff programs,” are industry-funded initiatives that improve the market position of a commodity by expanding markets, increasing demand, conducting market and scientific research, and promoting industry initiatives and activities. There are currently more than 20 USDA Research and Promotion programs on everything from beef, pork, eggs and dairy to specialty crops such as mangos, watermelons, Christmas trees, blueberries and others.
The proposed U.S. Sod Checkoff program would be the newest addition, and would “Bring Grass to Life” by telling the story of natural grass and the many benefits it brings to parks, sports fields, golf courses, lawns and other urban greenspaces. In this way, it would do exactly what checkoffs are designed to do for all agricultural commodities, which is to increase consumer demand, raise awareness, fund important scientific and market research, and educate policy makers and the public on the value of natural grass.
Dr. Casey Reynolds, executive director of Turfgrass Producers International (TPI), has been a powerful voice behind the effort, rallying the industry around the many benefits of an industrywide checkoff.
“The sod checkoff will benefit every aspect of the green industry by increasing the visibility and value of natural grass,” said Reynolds. “It can do this by not only driving preference for natural grass sod with both consumers and customers, but also by uniting the U.S. sod industry to protect and even grow market share in the face of threats from misinformation, building codes that seek to reduce our market, grass bans, and products that compete for our space.”
Just a snapshot of the many things you can do by uniting an industry through a checkoff include:
• Funding research and marketing efforts to drive consumer preference for natural grass in sports fields, urban greenspace, lawns and other sites.
• Funding market and scientific research to better understand consumers, improve farming techniques, create new products and technologies, document the many ecosystem services of urban greenspace, and more.
• Educate regulators and lawmakers on the value of keeping natural grass a key part of urban ecosystems in parks, sports fields, golf courses, lawns and other areas.
The proposed assessment rate of 1/10 of one penny per square foot of sod sold in the United States places the current estimate of the U.S. Sod Checkoff’s budget at approximately $14 million annually. If passed by a majority vote of U.S. sod farmers, the program will be implemented, managed and governed by a 13-member board of U.S sod producers who are all nominated by fellow sod producers. This board would be comprised of four sod farmers from northern states, five from southern states, and four from transition zone states to ensure uniform representation among the industry. They would invest checkoff dollars in initiatives such as national and consumer marketing collateral, agronomic and consumer research, local promotional or marketing materials for growers, customer and regulator education and outreach, or any other item that falls within the scope of Research and Promotion programs.
“Many of the leaders in our industry are passionate sod producers who want to preserve the legacy of their farms by protecting and growing their markets for future generations,” said Reynolds. “We have a great product in natural grass that provides countless benefits for athletes, kids and the environment in urban ecosystems worldwide, yet we know there are those who still need to be educated on our industry. In just the last 9 months, I have personally been involved in fighting legislative bills in three separate states that in one way or another are all designed to make it illegal to use natural grass.”
A U.S. Sod Checkoff program could give our industry the voice and resources it needs to address these and other challenges head on. If passed, it would quite literally create the single largest recurring source of natural grass research funds in the world that could fund scientific and academic research on a scale we have yet to see. Not to stop there, it would also create the single largest source of marketing and promotion efforts for natural grass so that we could reach parents, school administrators, city council men and women, and others who decide on the use of sports fields, parks, and other urban greenspace. This is all possible through the power and ability of a Research and Promotion program to unite U.S. sod farmers.
What could all this mean for sports field managers? “Well, we’d like to think that what’s good for natural grass is good for those who manage it,” said Reynolds. “If the checkoff can invest funds in research and marketing to show parents, school boards, city officials, legislators and others the value in their grass parks and sports fields, then they may be more willing to invest in those areas as well. By protecting and growing the market for natural grass, you also protect and grow the market for sports field managers and other associated industries.”
At the end of the day, natural grass parks and those who manage them provide much more than just a place to play. They provide countless environmental benefits, personal and community wellbeing, economic value and more. Our industry has a great story to tell, but until now we have lacked the channel to effectively tell it. A U.S. Sod Checkoff could not only explore and write the story of our industry through research and marketing, but it could also be the narrator that tells it along the way.
As of September 2021, a draft proposal that outlines the key points needed for an efficient, successful checkoff program has been written and submitted to the USDA for review. Once approved, it will be published in the U.S. Federal Register for public viewing and commentary prior to a vote of U.S. sod farmers on its passage in the spring of 2022.
If you are interested in learning more about the U.S. Sod Checkoff, please visit www.sodcheckoff.org.