Maryland growers of Kentucky bluegrass and ryegrass are getting attention for shaping Super Bowl history.
And while the industry is in the public eye, advocates want to remind you that they help to keep the Chesapeake Bay clean and pump millions into the state’s economy each year.
“Turf is one of the unsung heroes of the state’s agricultural economy,” said Jack Neil, an Annapolis lobbyist for the Maryland Turfgrass Association.
Summit Hall Turf Farm, a Montgomery County grower, was chosen to supply over 600 tons of sod to recover the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field when a rainy playoff game turned it into a swamp. The Packers won the NFC championship against the Carolina Panthers on the new grass, and this week, that sweep of green survived the team’s big victory celebration.
Maryland’s landscape is dotted with about 65 turf farms that sell young grass, usually with about an inch of dirt and roots intact.
Their harvest covers football fields, golf courses, lawns, highway medians and recreational areas. Across the state, perfect grass free of dandelions is spreading as subdivisions pop up and open spaces are turned into parks.
“We’re not actually losing ground to asphalt, but we’re losing a lot of ground to suburban lawns,” said Harry DeLong, a U.S. Department of Agriculture statistician who completed a study on turfgrass in Maryland last year.
The survey, released this month, found that Maryland land covered in farm-grown turf has doubled in the last decade — from 614,000 acres in 1986 to 1.2 million acres in 1995.
Growers and industry officials like to point out that thick, luscious grass offers environmental benefits, compared to sandy hillsides, parking lots and scraggly lawns.
One of the biggest enemies of the Chesapeake Bay is sediment and chemical runoff that washes into the watershed when land is cleared of growth.
Grass, with an extensive root system, helps keep soil from washing away and also breaks down pollutants in the water. When planted along streams and rivers, turfgrass can act like a natural buffer that helps protect the Bay’s watershed.
But while the natural plant works in favor of the environment, people and their zealous lawn tending often work against it.
“The thing about lawn care that is of particular concern is the amount of chemicals people apply. We aren’t a very weed- tolerant society. We like our lawns green and perfect,” said Kim Coble, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
She pointed out that golf courses, which must keep their grass healthy, often have ponds that connect to ground water. Fertilizers and pesticides used to treat the greens can run right into the ponds.
Farmers like Frank Wilmot, manager of Summit Hall of Packer fame, is well aware of the criticisms leveled at the industry.
“That’s what people in our industry call grass-bashing,” he said. “You can certainly have a nice yard without chemicals. You just have to put up with some weeds.”
But Wilmot did admit that educating the public about proper care for their lawns could help curb pollutants. The owners of new lawns often cannot resist applying an extra, but unnecessary, shot of fertilizer.
“People always think if the bottle says use four ounces, eight will make your yard look twice as good,” said Bob Lynch, a former president of the Maryland Turf Council.
But keeping those lawns, highway miles and cemeteries looking beautiful can also be profitable. Unlike other crops, which are sold and quickly consumed, keeping grass lush and green pumps money into the economy long after the blades leave the farm.
The agricultural survey tallied the economic impact of the Maryland turf industry — including costs to cut and maintain farm-grown turf — at $982 million a year. When compared to the sales of other crops, it accounts for 41 percent of the Maryland agricultural economy.
“In some ways it is comparing apples and oranges,” said DeLong, the survey author. “But the value of turf extends far beyond just producing sod. It’s maintenance really.”
Here is some turfgrass trivia from DeLong’s survey:
* Private schools spent almost three times as much money to tend their turf — $1,889 per acre — as county public schools in 1995. They employed almost as many turf workers — 2,944 — as golf courses.
* County schools in Maryland employed 714 full-time and 643 part-time employees to maintain turfgrass.
* Turfgrass covered more land in Maryland — 1.2 million acres — than any other agricultural crop.
* Churches, synagogues, mosques and communes accounted for 7 percent of all the acreage under turfgrass.
* Parks in Maryland spent $1 million on nutrients to feed turfgrass.
* Golf courses spent the most money to maintain their turf at $2,727 per acre. -30-