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Sod king has dreams of fields

May/June 2005 California Country magazine

Greg Dunn is in charge of West Coast Turf, an immense sod farm covering more than 300 acres in Stevinson.


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If you've ever complained about yard work on your "to-do" list, a unique farm in Merced County probably isn't the place for you. But it suits Greg Dunn just fine. In fact, he's made a career out of just watching the grass grow!

Dunn is in charge of West Coast Turf, an immense sod farm covering more than 300 acres in Stevinson. Saying they have the best yard in the neighborhood would be an understatement. The lush grass is meticulously cared for. It's mowed, watered, harvested and otherwise pampered 365 days a year. With a yard this size, there is definitely more to being a sod farmer than meets the eye.

Like most other farmers, Dunn keeps plenty busy. He begins each day by checking and rechecking the weather to see how it will affect his day. He then gets on the phone and starts returning calls from either homeowners or groundskeepers--answering questions, offering advice and discussing the season's crop outlook. Much of his job involves coordination as well. Since West Coast Turf installs nearly 80 percent of the sod they sell, arranging harvesting and installation takes up a majority of his time. When he's not in his office, on the phone or on the computer, he's usually in the sod fields supervising the harvest.

On average, it takes about four to six months for the sod to grow, and the rest of the year is spent harvesting. Harvesting is done by something akin to a large lawnmower. A computer system on the machine helps workers cut the grass evenly and uniformly and rolls the sod into either small or large rolls, depending on the job. The small rolls are primarily a fescue or Bermuda grass, used for homeowners. The large rolls are a blue rye blend, used for sports stadiums and golf courses.

With more than 60 sod farms that take up nearly 15,000 acres, California leads all states in the value of the turf grass it produces. And, whether it's for pro athletes or pro gardeners, there's a reason why West Coast Turf's sod has become a favorite among those with a green thumb. As with most farms, their success begins from the ground up.

"The key to the whole operation is the soil," Dunn said.

The soil around Stevinson consists of about 90 percent sand, which encourages formation of deep, well-draining root systems. The sod has become very popular with professional sports teams that often need sod replaced frequently, and with a fairly quick turnaround time between installation and actually playing on it.

"People just don't have time to wait for the seed," Dunn said.

One of Dunn's most memorable sod stories came from a panicked groundskeeper who, in fact, didn't have time to wait. As Dunn tells it, it was a dreary day in mid-January. The year was 1993 and the San Francisco 49ers were getting ready for their conference championship game against their bitter rival, the Dallas Cowboys. Preparations were going well until Mother Nature decided to put a damper on things. Literally.

"The rain kept coming and coming and it just wouldn't stop," Dunn remembered. "There was no way you could play on the field at Candlestick. It was a complete sloppy, muddy mess."

Enter West Coast Turf. At the time, it was the only sod farm located in the desert--Palm Desert, to be exact. Dunn was in charge of the sod for Candlestick and decided to try them. That's what happened, and the field played perfectly. (The Niners did not, however, and ended up losing the game.) Nevertheless, West Coast Turf became famous, and the rest, as they say, is sod history. Because of the 49ers' game, West Coast became a popular sod supplier for professional teams and eventually became the sole supplier of sod to the Super Bowl.

Today, the company has expanded from its original Palm Desert location and now operates three California facilities and four others throughout the West. Their sod is used at hundreds of golf courses in the state, including some of the most prestigious venues--Pebble Beach, La Quinta and Indian Wells. West Coast Turf is also the leading supplier of grass at most professional sports complexes in California and Arizona, such as the Rose Bowl, Dodger Stadium, Candlestick Park and the McAfee Coliseum, home to the Oakland A's and Raiders.

Clay Wood, head groundskeeper at the McAfee Coliseum, couldn't imagine working with anyone or anything but West Coast Turf.

"It's just the best stuff around," he said. "The quality is far and away the best. And on top of everything, they're just great people to work with. They even invite you down to their farm to look at the sod and make suggestions and just ask questions. They're great."

It's not just athletes who enjoy this super sod. West Coast Turf's grass can also be found in amusement parks like Sea World, Disneyland and the San Diego Wild Animal Park, as well as housing developments and community parks throughout the state. West Coast grows 20 different kinds of turf grass, including California's most popular variety, appropriately named "Super Bowl Sod." It's available at several nurseries and garden centers throughout the state, so football fans can have their own Super Bowl field right in their own back yard.

You may wonder, with a lifetime in the sod business, how Greg Dunn's lawn looks at home.

He would prefer you didn't ask!

"I used to have a beautiful lawn at home, but once my neighbors found out what I did for a living, they wouldn't leave me alone," Dunn said. "I would go out to mow the lawn and be out there for hours answering lawn questions. So now I keep a low profile when it comes to my job and my lawn."

While his lawn may be low profile, his business is not. Sod is becoming so popular that it accounts for nearly $150 million in business in California. But what is it about sod that keeps it so interesting for this 20-year turf veteran?

"No two days are ever the same," Dunn said. "I go to work and never know what the day is going to hold. And I love it."

(Tracy Sellers is a reporter with the California Farm Bureau Federation. She may be contacted at (800) 698-FARM or by e-mail at tsellers@cfbf.com.)


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