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Turf industry faces different challenges
MISSISSIPPI STATE - Mississippi's turf growers may have survived the last three dry summers only to face a drought of another kind: economic.
Building booms in DeSoto and Tunica counties and along the Gulf Coast in the last decade have attracted a number of new sod growers into the business, but a leveling off in new construction could signal lean days ahead.
Wayne Wells, turfgrass specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said Mississippi has increased sod production about 40 percent in the last few years, with six or seven new producers starting last summer and fall. The state's total acreage is close to 5,000 acres.
"Some of the new growers were looking for alternatives to traditional crops, but the acreage increase is also a response to building booms around the Memphis area," Wells said. "Five of the new farms are in DeSoto and Tunica counties."
Wells said there was a time when demand was bigger than production, but now marketing skills are essential for sod growers.
Paul Battle of Tunica started Battle Sod Farm in May 2000. With less sod needed now in the Tunica area, marketing is his biggest challenge in a highly competitive business.
"You've got to get out, talk to people and make a connection in the construction industry," Battle said. "It's hard to pay for the initial investment and establish your clientele. It's a whole lot of work with diminishing returns."
Nell Cobb of Hattiesburg is a second generation sod grower. Several years ago, she and her husband expanded their business, Mississippi Grass Nursery, before new construction took a downturn. In addition to increased acreage, they also made sure everything was irrigated, even before recent droughts. She said this year's rains have made a huge improvement over last year's conditions.
"Irrigation is not the same as a good general rain. For grass to grow properly, it needs an inch a week. You can keep it alive with irrigation, but you can't get it to grow well," she said. "This year was looking dry. We were dozens of inches short before (Tropical Storm) Allison hit and replenished our irrigation lakes."
Wells said he believes the current economic drought will be short-lived as demand for recreational sod increases and low interest rates boost construction activity.
"Average wholesale sod prices have not increased in the last decade," Wells said. "Unfortunately, the cost of production has increased, making good management for quality sod essential for success."