Kevin Morris, executive director of the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP), embarked on his journey in the turfgrass industry back in the early ’80s. His career began with a decision to join the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS) facility in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1981. His job location was not far from his hometown and just a stone’s throw from the University of Maryland in College Park, where he pursued a degree in agricultural economics.
Morris found himself under the mentorship of turfgrass researcher Jack Murray.
“He was very supportive and just had that Southern gentleman type of personality and he just really believed in me and gave me a chance. I really watched and emulated how he operated and then took over from there,” Morris said.
Morris’ inaugural project involved exploring the use of compost in turfgrass production at a time when Murray was the sole turfgrass specialist within the entire agency. Recognizing the significance of turfgrass research, Murray, along with a group of fellow scientists, laid the groundwork for the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP), commencing the inaugural trials in 1980.
In 1982, NTEP embarked on a groundbreaking test of perennial ryegrasses, marking the program’s first venture into charging an entry fee for trials. It was during this transformative period that Murray extended a job offer to Morris, who accepted the opportunity to start his career.
From those early technical responsibilities of handling data and orchestrating trial logistics, Morris steadily ascended the ranks within NTEP. His unwavering dedication and commitment to the program’s mission eventually led him to the role of executive director, a position he has held since 1998.
National Turfgrass Evaluation Program
NTEP, as Morris describes it, stands as an impartial nonprofit organization, uniting plant breeders, seed companies, sod companies, marketing entities and universities in collaborative research and product testing endeavors. NTEP’s vital role entails orchestrating trials, facilitating data collection and analysis and disseminating information freely to the public, without providing recommendations or analysis.
At the helm of NTEP, Morris is committed to ensuring consistency, accuracy and timely information release, all delivered at a reasonable cost considering the expansive scope of data they offer. He oversees the program’s extensive network, managing over 250 agreements for trials spanning 35 states, with multiple locations in some.
“The people in this industry are great. They’re salt-of-the-earth type of people. They compete with each other, but they don’t fight with each other very much,” Morris said.
“We all recognize there are things we could do better as far as using less water, using fewer pesticides, less fertilizer and being more efficient. We try to provide data if the data is there so people can make advances in those areas and put those products on the market so the end-user can use less water, fertilizer and those things.”
NTEP trials run on five-year cycles for different turfgrass types such as zoysias, centipede grass, tall fescue, and St. Augustine grass, and for specific traits such as the current low-input trial. NTEP organizes an advisory committee of researchers for each trial to get input on what to test for, how to test, trial locations, etc. The committee then puts forth recommendations that set the trial parameters to the NTEP Policy Committee for review.
“We try to keep our ear to the ground, stay involved in groups in the industry to stay up to speed with some of the issues out there and find out what we can address,” said Morris.
Members from Turfgrass Producers International, the Sports Field Management Association, the Turfgrass Breeders Association, American Seed Trade Association, the U.S. Golf Association, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and other industry associations work with NTEP and also serve on their governing boards.
“I think our governing board is unique because we have representatives from turf seed groups, universities, various groups from golf, sports turf and sod production. We have a pretty diverse group that is very helpful. I don’t know that any other organization has that kind of broad diversity,” said Morris.
Morris explained that while some grasses may not survive in certain climates, NTEP can still do ancillary trials to test for particular diseases or insect issues, drought resistance, traffic tolerance and to gather winterkill data. He said it’s helpful from an advisory standpoint to have that kind of input and not limit testing to traditional areas only. Most NTEP trials take place on research facility sites so they can control as many variables as possible.
Over the past 35 years, Morris has seen a lot more grass varieties come into play for NTEP trials. He recalls the first tall fescue trial in 1983 had 30 entries and NTEP’s current trial has around 130 entries.
Morris explained that NTEP has a responsibility to look at new products and trends as they come out. It tested some of the first perennial ryegrasses to show what regions they would grow and survive in, and which they would not. NTEP also evaluated which ryegrasses are resistant to gray leaf spot, a disease that emerged in grasses in the mid-1990s. More recently, NTEP has been evaluating zoysiagrasses to see if they’re suitable for putting greens.
“We bring together diverse stakeholders, not just the plant breeders and the sponsor companies, but also the end users and the university folks. It gives us an opportunity to address a lot of different needs,” Morris explained.
National Turfgrass Federation
NTEP is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit research organization whose role is to provide information from a data perspective. In addition to his role as executive director at NTEP, Morris is also president of the National Turfgrass Federation (NTF) which is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization. NTF can advocate and lobby at the federal level for research dollars and educate people on turfgrass-related issues and matters.
Running that voluntary, unpaid position, Morris shared that the turf industry has received 50 million federal dollars for turfgrass research over the last 15 to 20 years.
NTEP is in the midst of a significant data transition, from an old formatted system into a new Turfgrass Trial Explorer database. Their ultimate aim is for this database to become the primary source for accessing information, enhancing its overall functionality. Morris envisions a future where data collection becomes more efficient, with field data seamlessly and swiftly uploaded, in stark contrast to the current process that involves lengthy data analysis before website publication.
One of Morris’s top priorities before retirement is optimizing data usability, a goal he’s pursuing through collaboration with the University of Minnesota’s computer science department via an SCRI grant. Additionally, he’s laying the groundwork for the future inclusion of visual data representations from NTEP trials, moving beyond the traditional numerical columns. He looks forward to adapting and expanding the database to incorporate new agricultural technologies, phenotypic information and comprehensive testing of various characteristics.