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Maintenance trips create sod farming cost squeeze
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The volatile fuel market has caused nightmares for every farmer, but the problem is particularly vexing for sod producers who cannot escape the added cost of looking good.
Sod has to be trimmed and mowed at least twice a week to maintain good appearance and health before sale. Grass practically sells itself when it is luscious and in shape. But these frequent trips with the mower increase fuel use.
“There is not much sod farmers can do about this aspect of production,” said Ken Hood, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University. “They can't just let the crop sit.”
Sod farming also requires fuel for transportation. Sod is heavy and must be shipped or hauled to the customer. The high cost of diesel fuel eats into profit margins.
“Growers are optimistic, but as the cost of production goes up, some of the cost has to pass on to consumers,” said Wayne Wells, Extension turf specialist.
A 2007 Extension reference guide lists more than 50 commercial sod producers distributed in various locations around the state. Wells said there also are 20-25 other sod producers with small operations doing business.
Together, producers grow about 5,000 acres of sod in Mississippi. Temperate weather in south Mississippi allows producers there to grow and harvest grass year-round while producers in north Mississippi scale back when cold sets in.
“The business is tough at times, but it's been good to me and I would quit if I didn't like what I was doing,” said David Rainey, owner of the 600-acre Rainey Sod Farm in Corinth.
Four varieties of sod are grown in Mississippi. Bermuda is the most popular, and it ranges in wholesale price from $1.50-$1.70 per yard. St. Augustine and Zoysia, which are common in south Mississippi, command higher prices and are sold for $1.90-$2.50 per yard. Centipede sells for $1.70-$2 per yard.
These prices have remained fairly consistent over the last decade, but higher energy and fertilizer prices have caused many sod producers to rethink their price strategies.
“We can't raise prices at a level to keep up with cost,” said Dan Crumpton, owner of Oasis Sod Farm with locations in north and south Mississippi. “With fuel and diesel prices up, it's survival of the fittest.”
Diseases and insect pressure have not been major production problems for sod farmers this year, and neither has the weather, although late summer usually brings dry times.
Extension coastal area horticulturist Kerry Johnson said rainfall for most of the production year has been better than what sod farmers have experienced in previous years.
“When producers don't have to pay for water, that's much better,” he said.
To cut other costs, sod producers must find efficient ways of maintaining the crop while reducing the amount of fuel used. Equipment that runs on soy diesel or biodiesel fuel might help, along with making fewer trips across the field or developing different mowing techniques.
Another possibility is switching to organic fertilizers.
“Some organic fertilizers are priced competitively with the synthetic ones, which is a shifting of the farming paradigm,” Johnson said. “Some organic fertilizers are even lower in price.”
There also is hope that oil prices will stabilize soon.
“Much of the price increases we've seen for petroleum have been driven by oil speculators,” Hood said. “Even talking about opening up new avenues for oil will cause some price adjustments.”