Grass is greener for company with major league clout
Seventy miles northeast of Denver on the banks of the South Platte River, a farm is turning sand into gold. Fort Morgan-based Graff's Turf Farm has what it takes for the major leagues, and is one of four growers in the nation keeping the pros in green.
"My parents, Randy and Betsy, started this sod farm with 120 acres in 1979," said James Graff, who, with longtime production manager Marty Thiels, bought the company in 2007. Normally selling 125 to 150 acres of sod per year, at 440 acres Graff's is a mid-to-large size turf farm for Colorado.
"Something that helps us is that we have a lot of specialty turf. We don't just grow fields and fields of bluegrass and fescue," Graff said. "We grow buffalo grass, bentgrass for putting greens and some very high-end grasses."
Originally customers were landscapers, contractors and homeowners, but in the mid-1990s the company moved into sports turf, which now comprises 30 percent of its business.
"In the early '90s things shifted; we realized we grew high enough quality that we could use our turf in sports," Graff said. At that time, there was a different set of standards coming on in the sports turf world."
That diversification included custom blends and sod cutting to accommodate the emerging high-end market. "I remember back in the late 1980s, working with Randy on resodding the University of Northern Colorado fields where the Broncos practiced," said Ross Kurcab, turf manager for the Denver Broncos. "There wasn't much of a market back then for sports turf and what we need, for how short we cut it and how that affects it."
As sophistication of playing surfaces increased, the demand for Graff's high performance grass and unique sandy soil boomed. Thin cut sod - grass with a sliver of roots and soil - was the standard, but repairing professional fields with it was problematic for playability in a short time frame.
"Graff's embraced thick-cut sod in wide rolls, which can be played upon almost immediately," said Kurcab, a 26-year veteran of turf management in the NFL. "They were the first to jump on big rolls. As a result their business blew up big. Everybody in the industry knows them."
Early big league contracts included covering Chicago's Soldier Field for the World Cup in 1994 and the Kansas City Royals' Kauffman Field in 1997. From there, the farm has carpeted soccer, baseball, football and rugby fields around the country. But Kurcab stressed that this quality turf is not something only pro teams can afford. Graff's installs it in parks and Little League fields, so young athletes get the same safety and playability as the pros.
With the economy struggling, the turf industry overall saw a drop of 30 percent of its market, following the downturn in housing, commercial and leisure activities, Graff said. But its biggest decline is in golf course sales, due to delayed construction and renovations.
"It's understandable; their rounds of play are down, so revenue is down and renovations aren't done as much," he said. "We're in the leisure business. The upside for us is that sports venues are doing events to boost revenue that harm the turf, like monster truck shows, motocross or concerts."
One show on Graff's radar is the U2 360º concert, which has been killing turf across the globe. Scheduled for Invesco in Denver (on May 21) and Spartan Field in Michigan, the world record-holder for largest concert stage takes 120 trucks to haul the rigging and leaves field managers scrambling to repair the damage.
"This year we're having a concert by U2, and we're going to lose our grass," says Amy Fouty, athletic field manager for Michigan State University. "They put aluminum sheeting over the field for 10 days, driving trucks across to set up the stage. It's ridiculous; it's amazing. But the grass will die."
With dead turf and events scheduled to take place within weeks - if not days - field managers don't have time to seed. Sod is required, but the high-end, sand-based construction of pro and collegiate fields complicates repair, since the sod can't include a layer of clay soil or fields won't drain right.
"A lot of things make Spartan Field unique. Our soil was engineered specifically for football to make it the strongest soil possible with the best drainage," Fouty said. Composed of 90 percent sand, the field is custom built for the talents of the Big Ten team.
"We shopped around, looking for the best match possible for our engineered soil. We want to keep our field, to put in another just like it. But time is a problem; eight weeks after U2, the first scrimmage takes place - not enough time for the luxury of seeding in."
Fouty found what field managers for teams like the Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals and the University of Colorado Buffalos discovered: Graff's naturally occurring soil is an almost perfect match for their unique fields.
"Sand is the key," Graff says. "They have elaborate drainage systems for very practical reasons. It allows those fields to drain, which is important to the safety of million-dollar athletes playing on it." The farm's sand is perfectly round, putting it in demand for high performance fields.
"But there's a lot more to this business than just growing grass," says Larry DiVito, head groundskeeper with the Minnesota Twins. "Understanding the end user is a big component of doing business with the pros." Ending two decades of playing in an indoor stadium when Target Field was built in 2009, the Twins covered it in the emerald of Graff's turf.
"One reason for selecting Graff's was the sand-based turf, but another is how they run their business. Graff's is more progressive than many, and their customer service is higher, which is critical to us," he said. "We're a high-end athletic user; if Graff's is selling to us, to the Chicago Cubs, to Notre Dame and other NCAA colleges, they're known for quality and customer service."
Homeowners, Little League fields, and local high schools get the same grass, Graff said.
"We don't change practices or standards," he said. "But there are a few extra maintenance requirements on stadium turf. It's a lot more custom. For instance, if we're working on Wrigley Field turf, Roger Barrett has the opportunity to call here any day of the week to say, ‘Why don't you put this analysis of fertilizer on there for me?' And I'll do it."
Sitting in his office, surrounded by the stuff so many fields of dreams are built from, Graff grins and shakes his head. "My family may never hit oil, but we did hit sand. It's amazing to me to be sitting in Fort Morgan, Colorado, and getting the calls from the client list we have. You almost have to pinch yourself and think, ‘How cool is this?'
"How cool to be able to go to some of these baseball stadiums and have the list of clientele we have across the country, when the biggest concern in 1979 was, did we build the farm too far from Denver?"