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Turf growers face market challenges
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Weather conditions in 2002 may be much better than in recent years for Mississippi's sod producers, but the market challenges are not getting any easier.
Wayne Wells, turfgrass specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said reasonable amounts of rain have reduced irrigation expenses and some of the management challenges this year.
"We've had some fall armyworms and white grubs, but growers who monitor and treat in time should be able to control those pests," Wells said. "The toughest aspect facing the sod growers right now is marketing, especially in northern Mississippi."
Within the last decade, growers saw the potential for the sod industry during the building booms along the Gulf Coast and in DeSoto and Tunica counties.
"Today, it's a different story. There are more sod farms competing for the market," Wells said. "The combination of increased supplies and level demand make it essential that producers be skilled at more than just growing sod; they have to be good at marketing their product."
David Rainey, owner of Rainey Sod Farm in Corinth, confessed that marketing is not his gift.
"I rely on a good quality product and repeat business," Rainey said. "Times have really changed since we started 25 years ago, and especially in the last three years."
Rainey said price undercutting from the influx of new sod farms is one of his biggest challenges. Twenty-five years ago, he sold a yard of sod for a dollar. Today, the price is the same or in some cases, even lower.
"I don't want to give my product away. Cost of production has doubled or tripled from when we started," he said. "I think a lot of the new farmers are finding out that the cost of production is not as low as they had anticipated."
Wells said the market was wide open for producers two years ago, but not anymore.
"Centipede and St. Augustine grass are two of the bright spots for sod producers," Wells said. "Supply and demand for those grasses are helping prices hold steady. The threat of winter kill makes commercial growth of St. Augustine a challenge north of Interstate 20, but it's still very popular in lawns."
Margie Hussey, part owner of Hussey Sod Farms in Tupelo, said customer demand has influenced them to try growing St. Augustine for the first time in their 30 years of production.
"We may be too far north, but we want to try it," Hussey said. "We're staying busy, but it's obvious that the market is getting more competitive, especially in the last five years."