Sod farmers shaken by economy, weather

October 7, 2011

Agriculture

For the state’s sod growers, 2010 was a year to forget. Rocked by low demand due to the lack of new construction as well as adverse weather patterns, the industry saw many producers forced out of business, and those that survived struggled to remain a going concern.

Unfortunately, producers will hold no fond memories of 2011, either, and for the same reasons – no new construction and abysmal weather. In addition, market prices have softened significantly this year compared to 2010.

The attrition is starting to show.

“Our industry is tied to construction, and it is extremely cyclical,” said Dr. Wayne Wells, Mississippi State University Extension Service turf specialist.

According to figures from the MSU Extension Service, Mississippi has lost roughly 500 acres of turf over the last couple of years, and only 4,000 acres currently remain in production.

Wells said the state has lost approximately 20 sod farmers, leaving only about 50 producers in business, and that number is still falling. Wells said he expects “about 40 growers are going to stay – they will cut back or diversify, but they will survive.”

But, the number of producers is a moving target. Many current growers switched from row crops to sod when row crop prices tanked approximately a decade ago. When the row crop prices rebounded, many went back to cotton, soybeans and other row crops.

Dan Crumpton, owner of Oasis Sod Farm, which runs two operations in the state, is a grower who has diversified, growing cotton on land once dedicated solely to sod production.

“We have a farm in Coahoma County, in the north part of the state, and also one in Simpson County near Jackson,” Crumpton said. “Our operation in Jackson fares better as it is closer to more commercial building projects, even if there isn’t as much new construction as in years past.”

In addition to the economic woes and lack of new construction, producers have been buffeted by adverse weather. In 2010, the year opened with historically low temperatures across the Southeast, and rainfall was above average. The summer brought record high heat indexes and thunderstorms while the fall was exceptionally dry.

This year has been a near carbon copy. Cool, wet weather in the early part of the year impacted growth and harvesting, while record summer temperatures and drought forced more irrigation. Growers in Southwest Mississippi took the brunt of the hot, dry conditions.

“The closer you got to Texas, the worse it was,” quipped Wells.

Wells said most sod farmers have irrigation systems, but, again, that is driving up farmers’ costs.

“Fuel costs continue to be of concern, affecting production input costs on fertilizers, chemicals, supplies, equipment and transportation. On the brighter side, producers have not had to deal with many pest issues this year,” Wells said.

While input costs rise, market prices have fallen. Bermudagrass, zoysia, centipede and St. Augustine were all bringing from 20¢ to 50¢ less per square this year compared to 2010.

The weather has also helped producers. The cold winters and hot summers have caused significant loss of turf across the state. Replacing sod on golf courses and athletic fields has carried many growers over the last couple of years.

According to figures from Extension, Mississippi currently has over 2.5 million acres of turf being maintained. The largest single component is the over 2 million acres in roadside turf maintained by the highway department.

The second largest component, and the one that spends the most time and money on turf maintenance, is the yards of homeowners. There are almost 300,000 acres of lawns surround Mississippi’s 740,000 homes.

In addition there are over 160 golf courses, over 2,000 athletic fields and the turf surrounding schools, churches and industrial sites.

Pessimism abounds in the construction industry concerning any near-term turnaround in building starts. And, last month state economist Darrin Webb told state lawmakers that he expects the economy to grow “at an incredibly slow pace” over the next two years.

Crumpton said, “We will hang in there and keep at it. As we have been, we’ll hope for a rebound.”

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