Farmer moves to grass as cash crop
Despite having grown up on a farm where his dad raised tobacco for more than 50 years, Jason Barbour did not see a bright future for himself in bright leaf.
“Tobacco wasn’t looking good — and it was not what it used to be,” says the Clayton, N.C., farmer. “We’d been with Philip Morris since contracts started, but I just didn’t see it [a future].”
So, in 2000, he partnered with his brother James to start Double J Farms, a completely new venture for the men. James eventually returned to more conventional crops such as tobacco, wheat and soybeans, however.
“We had the assets — land, water and grass,” Jason says. “It takes a lot of land for grass, and an acre is not much. It is not like [some alternatives] in the nursery business, where with 1 acre of land, you’re in business.”
• Jason Barbour decided sod was a good alternative to tobacco.
• The circa-2000 building boom got Double J Farm off to a running start.
• Even after burst of the housing bubble, Barbour’s sod business has kept growing.
Of course, there is also the confusion about whether to call what Barbour does sod or turf.
“Well, the school definition of turf, I believe, is ‘mowed vegetation,’ ” Barbour says with a laugh. “Sod is something you dig up and sell, so that’s what we call it.”
Double J Farms offers two varieties of sod: centipedegrass and bermudagrass. Each has its positives and its demands, which is why Barbour dropped fescue from his offerings a while back.
“Centipede is easier to grow and spreads fast. It is more drought-tolerant and doesn’t require as much work,” he says. “Bermuda is prettier, but takes more maintenance, such as fertilizer. If you don’t take care of bermuda, it starts to look bad. Fescue takes too much water … and a few years back when there were so many water restrictions, we cut back.”
Barbour found a niche that wasn’t being served in his operation, which is split about evenly between contractors and homeowners.
“A lot of the big sod companies won’t usually sell one pallet, but to me it all still adds up,” he says. “Sure, I’d rather cut a tractor-trailer load at a time, but you have to be nice to people.”
Sizin’ it up
A pallet from Double J Farms is 500 square feet of grass. Barbour and his two-man crew cut 16-by-24-inch squares and stack them, as he believes the squares are easier for customers to handle and install. Another industry standard is to supply the grass in 24-by-48-inch rolls, which is a faster, but a more labor-intensive process.
Planting is done in the spring and early summer, and the grass is irrigated, mowed and fertilized until it is ready to harvest. Bermudagrass comes back every season, while centipedegrass has to be reseeded. It takes 18 months for centipedegrass to be ready to go, while a bermudagrass “crop” finishes in just 12 months.
“We use rotary mowers to cut, which gives a higher-quality commercial grade to the cut, and we keep the grass an inch high. Bermuda grows fast, and we sometimes have to cut it two or three times a week. Centipede can sometimes go two weeks without a cut.”
When an order is placed, one man runs the harvester, which cuts into the soil about 1 inch deep, while the other two stack the sheets.
“People always ask why we don’t run out of dirt,” Barbour says. “But the grass holds the soil and keeps us from losing it to erosion. If you look out on the farm, the paths are lower than the fields. We don’t lose any more than we would to wind and rain erosion.”
The most labor lies in getting a yard or site ready for installation. For best results, the soil needs to be tilled and scraped back to nothing but bare soil. Barbour says average homeowners can do it themselves; while this prep work is labor-intensive, the rewards are visible.
“The type of bermuda we grow has to be propagated; this is not something you can walk into a store and buy. Centipede is slow [to grow from seed] and has to be sown just right. It can take a couple of years at best before it starts to look like a yard,” he says.
“And sod is not as expensive as people think. We had a customer once who did seed, and crabgrass got into his yard. He had to start all over. When we were done, he figured out it would have cost him $100 more to have done sod to start with. A lot of folks don’t realize that the seed is not always right and that when you do what everyone thinks [you should] — put straw over the top of sown seed — you’re bringing in every weed that was in that straw field and putting it in with your grass.”
Keep sod in mind
Much of Double J Farms looks like a well-groomed golf course, the kind you see in tournaments on TV. But sod is not a plant-it-and-forget-it crop.
“You always have to worry about drought. You have to spray preemergence in the spring, and then when summer sets in, the main thing is to mow and properly fertilize. The grass itself will choke out a lot of weeds, and then we spot-spray with backpack sprayers. That saves a lot of money — there is a point where labor is really not that expensive,” Barbour says.
Barbour says that the business has hit several plateaus, but continues to grow and get better as people get used to the idea of “carpeting” a yard.
“When we started, we had to talk people into it,” he says. “But you get an instant yard. It gives curb appeal for a builder, and helps speed the sale. It also helps where there are getting to be more regulations in dealing with erosion. It is a rewarding thing to go by a site a year or two after doing a job, where the folks have taken care of the yard, and you say, ‘That’s my grass.’ ”
Brantley writes from Nash County, N.C.
This article published in the September, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.