Turf training begins in high school

Photos by Marc Moran.
Atlee turf science students Daniel Hedra and Jason Pritchard paint a stenciled logo for Virginia Commonwealth University in preparation for hosting the CAA Soccer Tournament.

The United States economy and agricultural communities have seen significant changes not only recently, but since America’s founding. As the economy adjusts and agriculture becomes more “green,” U.S. land is becoming limited and suburban. Our industry must ponder several questions during this time of transition: Where will the next generation of sports field managers come from? Where will they find the skills and education necessary to compete in this new and diverse workplace?  

The answer may be with American agricultural institution, Future Farmers of America (FFA). FFA has been leading the way in agriculture education since 1928, and has a current membership of over 500,000 students and 7,439 total chapters. This organization may just have what we need, as a number of students have already begun to study sports field management in their high school FFA classrooms.

Marc Moran from Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, Va., and Matt Biddle from Eldon High School in Eldon, Mo., are two FFA instructors addressing these green industry issues and inspiring students along the way.

During Moran’s second year of teaching in the fall of 2000, a new football coach in the district asked for help. Initially, Moran and his students started assisting on two practice fields and painting the logos on the varsity football field. Since then, he and his students have taken over the maintenance of 17 acres of sports fields. They manage practice and competition fields from football and soccer to baseball and softball. The Atlee turf program was nationally recognized as the 2007 High School STMA Football Field of the Year.

In the spring of 2001, Moran attended a “Teach the Teachers Program” hosted by the National FFA organization where the topic was sports field management. By 2002, a turf course had taken shape in the FFA curriculum at Atlee High School with 14 students enrolled. The need for this course was not only based on the desire for safe athletic fields, but also the demographic shift taking place within the district. As in many other areas, traditional agriculture had been reduced within the confines of the school district. The new turfgrass course allowed a changing student population to become exposed to agriculture. The results have certainly been productive. There are 70 students currently enrolled in the program.

Justin Hare, class of 2004, serves as transit operator as students lay out the end zone design for Homecoming 2003 at Raider Stadium.
Students work on painting the end zone design they created forHomecoming 2004 at Raider Stadium.

Atlee students are required to take prerequisite courses during their freshman year, and must have achieved sophomore standing to apply for the turf and sports field courses. Upon acceptance, first-year Atlee turf students will take a general turf and horticulture course, followed by a sports field-specific course their second year. Over the years, Moran has learned to separate tasks based on first and second-year students. The more experienced students typically work on the game fields and demonstrate the intricacies of sports field management to the new sports field students.  

Even though labor may not be an issue at Atlee, traffic and money are a real-world concern. The initial budget of $1,000 from the school has grown to nearly $3,000, with 90 percent of the materials paid for by various booster clubs.

Moran has also become involved in writing the FFA turfgrass curriculum for the state of Virginia. He presents his program to other interested instructors, and actively works with the local community college and Virginia Polytechnic State University to obtain dual-credit courses for his students.

Biddle has a similar story. Like Moran, he began became involved in sports fields based on needs from the coaches. The big problem Eldon schools faced was consistent mowing of the sports fields, which led Biddle to apply for a grant, resulting in the purchase of a lawn tractor. Subsequently, Eldon agriculture students began to mow the fields. Eldon students must also be FFA members and register for courses in plant science, horticulture and turfgrass management.

The program in Eldon has expanded since its inception 12 years ago. At that time, students were managing only the varsity football field, but now manage all fields and grounds for the entire school district. They maintain the elementary, middle and high school grounds, as well as the equipment used to maintain the district facilities. Their budget is $5,000 ($10,000 with equipment). “They [the administration] really let us do a lot of things as long as we do them,” Biddle says. Students, with guidance, designed and installed the irrigation systems used on the softball and practice football fields. “The students do all the work. The only thing we hire out is pesticide spray applications … to save time. When you need to treat for insects or a disease, you typically need to treat right then. You can’t always wait until it’s time for turf class.”

(Right to left) Jake Taylor, Kelly Hiner and Brian Lantz show off the Toro 223D RM they finished rebuilding and painting during their agricultural mechanics class.

Both instructors expressed the importance of gaining additional education from as many diverse sources as possible (short courses, trade publications, sales representatives, colleges and local extension programs).

Similar programs have found success partnering with industry groups. Brian Fuller in Peoria, Ariz., offers sports field management as part of the career and technical education curriculum he teaches. He has developed a relationship with Chris Calcaterra, who manages the Peoria Sports Complex and is constantly in need of labor.  Calcaterra is pleased with Fuller’s students, and says, “The students need very little training … they are really ready to work.” The partnership they have developed has supplied the Peoria Sports Complex with an “endless supply of interested labor” according to Calcaterra, with some students working into full-time positions after graduation.

As our industry continues to grow, mature and adapt, we as current industry stewards need to partner with educators at all levels to ensure we have the curriculum and opportunities to support our need for the next generation. Students of today are the sports field managers of tomorrow.

Chad Follis has a master’s degree in turfgrass management from the University of Missouri, and is currently a horticulture instructor at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo.