Several southern New Jersey businesses are playing in the big leagues ... literally.
One is Tuckahoe Turf Farms, where fields of dreams get their sod.
Nearly 700 acres of picturesque, well-groomed grass stretches across the third-generation farm in Hammonton, a spacious rural scene but for one oak tree amid all the openness.
This Atlantic County-grown turf is sold to professional, college and minor league sports stadiums and practice arenas.
When the Philadelphia Eagles played the Browns on Sept. 9 in Cleveland, the field at Cleveland Browns Stadium was born and raised in South Jersey, said James Betts, of Estell Manor, who owns the farm with his brother John and cousins David and Phil Betts.
“It’s neat when you watch TV because I can tell my grass,” he said. “We’re our own best critics too. We’ll see things most people won’t.”
The farm’s list of clients has also included the Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, New York Red Bulls and others, he said.
Supplying the professional sports industry also has been part of other businesses in the region.
Grass from Tuckahoe Turf Farms and other vendors at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field sits atop a field base of sand supplied by the U.S. Silica plant in Commercial Township, Cumberland County. The special drainage qualities of the plant’s sand also has made it a favorite for horse racing tracks in the Mideast.
Sometimes the fans are sitting on another area product. Galloway Township textile plant Absecon Mills has produced fabric for seats at the Prudential Center in Newark — home to the New Jersey Devils.
Lately, the 100-employee manufacturer has been focusing on advanced textiles, in particular the ballistics fabrics used in bullet-proof vests and such.
And when it’s time to buy a souvenir, another area company might be involved.
Dennis Township-based Keltex Imprinting Apparel Inc. prints officially licensed products and T-shirts for some professional teams.
There can be big money in pro sports.
Professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey generate nearly $24 billion a year, according to Plunkett Research, a Houston-based industry analyst. The Dallas Cowboys — the NFL’s most valuable team — earned $500 million in total revenues last year, Forbes reported this month.
In Hammonton, the sports industry has helped the farm survive during tough economic times when it lost business from a construction industry decline. While the farm has produced turf for sports venues since the 1990s, it focused more on the niche market more than five years ago amid signs of a housing slowdown, Betts said.
Ballpark groundskeepers like the area’s sandy soil because it drains quickly, and the the company developed a reputation for a quality product and reliabililty, he said.
This segment now accounts for about one quarter of its business, he said, with much of the rest going to homeowners, golf courses, retail and construction applications.
“We’re grateful for what we’ve got and what we’ve done.” Betts said. “There are a lot of farms that aren’t doing as well. Not saying we’re setting the world on fire, but we’re making it through these hard times. We adapted for it. We saw it coming; we changed our direction to focus more on these specialized fields.”
Supplying this segment of the market has its advantages and its challenges.
The turf for professional stadiums sells for more money.
While a typical homeowner would pay around 30 cents per square foot of sod, the cost can go up double or triple for stadium sod, depending on its thickness, cut and other factors, he said.
Groundskeepers for these teams take their turf seriously, and sometimes visit the farm to check on the grass.
“They’re really demanding clientele, and you’ve got to have a really good product. We’ve worked with them to better our product,” Betts said. “Everything’s got to be perfect. If they see one roll that’s not perfect, they’ll reject it. And if you’re 1,000 miles from your farm, you can’t have that.”
The nature of the work has also kept James Betts a neutral sports fan.
“I root for the one we’re sodding at the time,” he said.
Tuckahoe Turf Farms keeps a “war board” calendar detailing what teams are getting what grass by when. Sod for the 2013 NFL season is already being groomed.
The farm is divided in sections, with specific turf going to specific teams.
Farmers here have been keeping an eye on one particular section in case the Steelers should need some at the end of the season.
“We get some stuff ready they never even use, but we’re prepared if they need it,” Betts said. “We go out of the way for these guys, and in the end run it all pays off.”
Upkeep of such expansive grounds is about as time consuming as it sounds.
The farm employs about 32 people. Grass is mowed every two or three days. Gigantic sprinklers rain down water. The turf — and the heavy-duty equipment that keeps it alive and well — are checked and monitored often. Once cut, the product is shipped quickly — on flatbeds or refrigerated trucks depending on the season and weather.
“It’s always a challenge when you deal with a living product,” he said.
There were 1,881 turfgrass sod farms in the U.S., resulting in nearly $1.4 billion in sales in 2007, according to the latest data available from the USDA. Among New Jersey’s 40 sod farms, this represented about $38 million.
In Atlantic County, the family farm was founded by the late Walter Betts, who started with a few acres of sod in Estell Manor before buying land in Hammonton in 1980, Betts said. His two sons, George and Tom Betts, ran the business for years before selling to their children.
“To be a farm in a third generation,” James Betts said, “it’s pretty much an accomplishment any more.”
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