Graff and Thiel run Graff’s Turf Farms, Inc., at Fort Morgan, Colo., which produces superior grasses for some of the biggest sports facilities in the country, as well as for residential and commercial customers.
Randy and Betsy Graff, James’ parents, started the turf operation in 1979 with just 120 acres and harvested their first sod the following year. The business has grown to 440 acres and has transitioned to the next generation.
Besides growing turf for sports complexes, Graff’s Turf Farms also serves more traditional customers in Colorado’s Front Range area and as far away as Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota. The farm’s sandy soil provides near-perfect growing conditions for exceptional sod blends that are rich in color, texture and durability.
Thiel says they started to develop a short-cut bluegrass about 20 years ago that was designed specifically for athletic fields. “Short-cut at 5/8 inches is tougher, denser and the roots are closer to the surface. We were the startup for this kind of grass in the cool-season market. Now others have caught on to growing it.” Standard-cut sod runs 1 3/4 inches.
Getting into Sports
In the early 1990s, Graff’s Turf was chosen to provide sod by major sports venues such as Soldier Field (Chicago Bears), Coors Field (Colorado Rockies) in Denver and Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City Royals). “That’s when we realized we had something special,” Graff recalls.
Since then, the list has grown to include Tiger Stadium (Detroit Tigers), Target Field in Minneapolis, Minn. (Minnesota Twins), the University of Notre Dame Stadium before its move to artificial turf, and Busch Stadium (St. Louis Cardinals).
The list goes on with NFL practice facilities; major and minor league baseball fields; soccer fields; and university, high school and municipal athletic sites.
Stadiums aren’t just for sporting events anymore, Graff says. They have turned into event venues for things like concerts and weddings.
Graff’s Turf Farms ships rolls of sod via refrigerated trucks, hiring local workers to install them.
“There’s really no limit to how far we can go with refrigerated trucks, which keep the sod fresh, because there's no heating, no wind damage and no tarp wear,” he adds. The farm contracts those refrigerated trucks and runs two of its own delivery vehicles.
“Sometimes we get orders today that need to be delivered tomorrow,” Graff says. “For example, if a concert destroys grass on a sports field, we often need to repair it with new sod the next day. It’s an intense business and you never know when repairs and redos are going to be needed.”
Supplying sod to athletic complexes is just part of their customer base, comprising only about 30 percent of their production. Fifty percent of their sod is used for commercial businesses, 15 percent for parks and recreation areas, and 5 percent for homes.
“It’s a double-edged sword in that the sports arena market can actually hurt our regular business, because customers might think we’re too elite and not call us,” says Graff. “In reality, the heart of our business depends on commercial customers, not sports.”
While they love to work with the high-volume sports turf business, Graff quickly admits they need to focus on their commercial and residential customers, even though those customers require less sod per project.
“For example, home yards used to be 3,000 square feet, but now they’re smaller, down to less than 1,500 square feet,” he says. It’s a result of growing water scarcity in Colorado and larger homes being built on smaller lots.
On the other hand, a sports complex requires enough sod to cover 100,000 to 110,000 square feet (2 to 2.5 acres). And, because it’s a high-traffic situation, sports turf may need to be replaced every five to six years or sooner. In residential settings, turf lasts 20 years or more.
“When the economy — or a segment of it — changes, we’re affected right away,” Graff explains. “When the golf industry slowed down, it really hit us and we needed big sales to replace that square footage. That’s why we always work hard to stay diversified with a wide range of customers.
“We’re looking to the future now and dipping our toes into growing crops for the produce market, like rhubarb, garlic, sweet potatoes and asparagus,” Thiel says. “There’s a lot of competition in the turf business these days and we’re looking at producing crops that we don’t currently see much here in Colorado.”
Check out the full C Magazine with this article and more.