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Cool, rainy spring improves sod crop
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Though cool temperatures and excess rain kept many Mississippi row crops from getting a good start this spring, they actually helped sod production.
Extra water allows many growers to cut back on irrigation. Once the sod establishes, there is not much else for growers to do, other than mow at regular intervals and maintain their market base.
“Wet weather did cause a few mowing delays for some growers and also slowed down some landscaping projects because it hindered access to sites, but these problems were minimal,” said Wayne Wells, turfgrass specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “Harvesting of sod is year-round, and most growers are doing pretty well with that aspect of production.”
Mississippi has about 50 sod growers, located in all areas of the state. Wells said the number of growers has remained fairly steady over the past 10 years with some going out of business and others entering into it.
Bermudagrass is the dominant species on most farms, although many growers also include zoysia, centipede and St. Augustine turgrasses. Some growers in north Mississippi produce turf-type fescue. The larger farms may have 200 acres or more in production, and smaller farms typically have 50 acres, Wells said.
Most of Mississippi’s sod farms sell to markets within a radius of 50-70 miles of their location. However, a few growers sell to markets in other states across the Southeast.
“Sod producers are holding their own and maintaining their farm size despite the current economic downturn,” Wells said. “Their sustainability often depends upon the size and location of their farm and the location of their market. When the Memphis economy flattened, sod farmers who had markets in that area lost business.”
Sod producers in many areas of the state have seen their sales drop by 30 percent because of the decrease in housing starts, said Extension agricultural economist Ken Hood. Construction drives the market for sod. New housing starts will cause sod sales to pick back up, he said.
“Prices for sod have not dropped, even though the economy has been in a downturn,” Hood said. “Bermudagrass prices this year have varied from $1.90 per square yard to $2.30, which is comparable to those of past years.”
Oasis Sod Farms owner Dan Crumpton has one operation in Clarksdale and a second near Pinola. Those two locations total about 460 acres, about 80 acers less than last year, because of the housing decline.
“The decline in housing starts hurt our sales, and we took some acreage out of sod and put it into soybeans this year,” Crumpton said.
Bermudagrass and zoysiagrass are popular choices for Mississippi growers primarily because of their drought tolerance. Zoysia is slightly more expensive than its Bermuda cousin, and those prices range from $2.20 to $2.70 per square yard.
Some growers in south Mississippi also include centipede and St. Augustine because these varieties are well suited to the area’s climate. Prices for both centipede and St. Augustine vary from $1.70 per square yard to $2.05.
Many growers have adjusted to the economic downturn by adding other crops or reducing sod acreage. Some of the large growers have followed Crumpton’s lead and diversified acreage to soybeans, corn or both. Crumpton is investigating the potential of miscanthus, a native grass of Southeast Asia touted as a source for biofuel.
“We have about 50 acres dedicated to growing rhizomes of this grass,” Crumpton said. “Miscanthus is a sterile plant, so farmers cannot buy seed. We have obtained the rhizomes and are propagating them for sale to growers as the market develops.”
Large sod growers have turned to traditional crops because they have the acreage and equipment, but small farms have their own options.
“Most small growers have other enterprises, businesses or occupations,” Wells said. “Some have added sod installation as a service they offer.”
While sod sales have declined, Mississippi sod farmers will be ready to recapture the market when the nation’s economy starts to recover.
“We’re hanging in there because these tough times are nothing unusual for farmers and we’ve learned to work through them,” Crumpton said. “When the going gets tough, the tough just work smarter.”