Mowing the lawn for Kenneth Pegg is not a Saturday morning chore, not with 140 acres of it. When it gets that big, it is called a turf farm, and Pegg is the manager of the Stephens Turf Farms on Greene 853 Road.
Jerry and Wynell Stephens of Little Rock started the farm back in the 1970s. Pegg said it was a time when Little Rock was booming much as Jonesboro is today. The Wynells had 140 acres and were wondering what kind of agri-business they could get into that would get them out of commodity crops such as cotton, soy-beans and corn.
They settled on turf farming. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller had started a sod business back in the 1960s, but nobody in the northeast quadrant was doing it, Pegg said. Pegg has been with the farm since the beginning, and he said they started experimenting with three or four acres. “Before the Internet and before the university systems started doing research on the subject, information on sod farming was hard to come by,” Pegg said. “Some information transferred from row-crop farming, but some of the specialized information like chemical and disease control did not, so we had to learn on our own.”
As the industry has grown, all the major universities have developed research programs,
including the University of Arkansas. “Now,
we always have someone we can call on besides the sales reps from the companies that do this,” he said.
Pegg said he does not know how far back the history of sod farming goes, but he has seen pictures of horse-drawn equipment for harvesting sod. He said the early sod farming was for pasture turf used in erosion control and maybe a little on golf courses. “They did not have the speciality grasses we have today,” he said.
The industry started small and grew as society grew, Pegg said. “What used to be a luxuary or novelty in the 1970s has now become just another building commodity,” he said. “When contractors start to bid a job, they figure in the cost of shingles, sheet-rock, nails and sod. Sod is now more likely to be a part of the process verses not being a part,” he said.
He said first and foremost the advantage of sod is that it is instant. You can put it down this week and be playing on it next week. He said the hybrid Bermuda that people like so well has to be done with sod as it cannot be seeded. On hilly sites, sod provides immediate erosion control. “With sod, you get a mature plant,” he said. “When you plant seed, a lot can happen between the planting and the maturity.”
Unlike row crops, turf can be harvested year around. Pegg said the only time they cannot harvest is if the ground is frozen. Their harvest is market driven. When the builders cannot finish construction because of weather, Pegg doesn’t harvest.
Otherwise, the sod farmer experiences some of the same problems row crop farmers experience. They have to irrigate in dry weather and can’t get into the field if it is too wet. They have to use chemicals to control disease. Some of the weeds are becoming resistant to the chemicals they historically have used and the Environmental Protection Agency takes chemicals off the market, requiring them to find new ones.
Pegg said they have to guess as to how much sod they will need in any given season as there is usually only about a three-day lag between order and delivery. They market both retail and wholesale in about a 75-mile radius of Paragould. “The cost of freight determines how far afield we go,” he said.
Bermuda is their everyday seller because it is versatile and economical. He said it can be used for lawn, golf courses or athletic fields. He said Bermuda started as a wild grass and has been altered genetically in the laboratory through selective breeding. It is primarily a sun grass, although it can tolerate some shade. It goes dormant in the winter. Next to that, their best-selling grass is Zoysia. It is still a warm-season grass and makes a thick turf. “The sunlight requirements determine what breed of grass you have to have,” Pegg said. “On large projects, such as schools, Bermuda is usually used because it is cheaper.”