Albion College, Albion, Mich.

1. What is your job?

I’m director of grounds for Albion College, a private liberal arts college in Albion, Mich. I’m responsible for anything that affects the outside areas of the campus, and my department assists other departments with many other tasks. Our primary areas are the lawn and landscape grounds of campus, the president’s home and a conference center; the athletic fields; the equestrian center; sidewalks and parking lots; solid waste removal and the campus recycling program; and the motor pool. We handle general construction or demolition before contracted vendors arrive, and we assist the skill trades such as carpenters and plumbers.

From left: Scott Falahee, Jeff Kotas, Jeff Watson, Mark Frever and Elmer Garrett. Mark Frever is director of grounds for Albion College. Scott Falahee and Jeff Kotas are current grounds staff members. Jeff Watson and Elmer Garrett moved to residence hall maintenance after working on the grounds staff from 2002 to 2006.

2. How big is your staff and how do you organize them?

I have a staff of nine, including a mechanic who works with the grounds department and motor pool equipment. I’ve divided the remaining primary responsibilities into four areas, with two grounds personnel assigned as a team to each zone. The campus lawn and landscape is divided to form two of the zones. The athletic fields are the third zone and the equestrian center the fourth. Each team has the autonomy to manage processes within their zone, and I coordinate and oversee their operations.

3. What’s your background in the turf industry?

I entered the turf industry in 1991 after graduating from MSU with a bachelor’s in criminal justice, working at Hankerd Hills Golf Course in Jackson, Mich. A part-time job as a groundskeeper influenced my change of career direction. I returned to MSU in 1995 and completed the turfgrass management two-year certificate program. I interned at Oakland Hills Country Club for the 1996 U.S. Open Championship. From 1997 to 2001, I traveled Michigan as a turfgrass sales consultant for several fertilizer and chemical distributors. In the spring of 2001, I returned to Hankerd Hills as the superintendent. I accepted my current position in the fall of 2002. I continue to consult for Hankerd Hills and co-own the DryJect franchise in Michigan.

Photo by Jeff Kotas, Albion College Grounds.
Jumping results in the need for ongoing renovation.

4. What was your role in the Equestrian Center project?

Albion College owned 350 acres less than a mile south of campus that was farmed on contract. Many projects had been proposed for the site. About four years ago, a student senior project developed a proposal for the development of an equestrian program to include an equestrian center run by the college where students could bring their horses to compete at the varsity or club level or for recreational activities. That proposal was accepted.

At the time, the college did not have a director of equestrian studies. I became involved in the very early stages of construction planning along with the vice president of facilities. My responsibility ranged from picking the location for the barns and routing the driveway to establishing the pastures, paddocks and indoor and outdoor arenas.

5. How did you research the project?

I used my past educational experience to start the research, quickly finding that many of the same sports field principles apply. I would not have found all the research sources without the Turfgrass Information Files (TGIF), the staff support from MSU and my sports turf industry networking relationships. Online research on horse tracks turned up past articles on both dirt and turf tracks. My two main resources were the Penn State extension program and MSU’s equine program.

Photos by Morris Arvoy, Albion College Communications.
Horse and rider work out on the outdoor stone dust and sand arena.

6. How did you handle the construction process and balance it with other responsibilities?

We do as much in-house as we can here, only hiring general contractors for building construction. I was on-site much of each day during the construction. The facility development is an ongoing process, which I continue to monitor daily. The operation now covers over 120 acres. About 85 percent of that is dedicated to the hay and pasture product. The remainder of the site is still farmed under contract.

We developed an indoor sand/stone dust arena, with outside perimeters approximately .2 of a mile, a smaller outdoor sand/stone dust arena and an outdoor native soil turf arena. The sand mix for the arenas had to be spec’d to meet a specific range for compaction to remain firm enough for the horse events. We leveled and compacted the subgrade, then covered it with a geotextile fabric to prevent contamination. The next layer is a 4-inch stone dust base with some sand mixed in that is compacted and kept firm. That is topped with a 2-inch layer of a mix of stone dust and sand that is kept loose and manicured every day. It’s the same concept as a baseball skinned base path with a deeper top layer. Consistency throughout the arena is extremely important for the horses’ footing.

The turf arena is a practice and competition venue, approximately 300 by 300 feet. It was constructed much like a push-up native soil soccer field, without drainage. We aerate and topdress aggressively with sand to improve the bluegrass arena.

7. How do you manage the new facility?

The director has the horse experience and is also the coach of the varsity equestrian program, so the working relationship is like that of a field-sport coach and sports field manager. Our staff manages the equestrian spaces for the coach and his schedule.

The hay fields are maintained for three production cycles. After each baling, we mow down the stubble to give it the clean look and to promote regrowth of the fescue and other foraging grasses within our mix. We maintain the paddock turf at about 5 to 6 inches using a 15-foot, pull-behind, rotary gang mower for both areas. We trim around the perimeter of the paddocks with a zero-turn mower.

We use a Toro Sidewinder 3500 rotary mower on the turf arena, keeping the height at between 3.5 to 4 inches, compared to the 1.75 inches for our field sports. We use typical fertilization, aeration and topdressing practices, along with aggressive weed control.  

8. What’s the best tip on field management you’ve learned from someone?

It was to never underestimate the power of mowing. It’s the first thing I stress when speaking or consulting: find ways to increase your mowing frequency and always keep a sharp blade.

Photo by Katie Waudby, Albion College
Play is in action on the Albion College baseball field.

9. What are you doing in your current field management program that you wish you would have done five years ago?

Modifying our native soils is one of my goals that I now realize can be met more aggressively than my previous practice of frequent, light applications. I’ve learned that I can effectively increase my in-season applications to depths ranging from .25 to .5 inch.

10. If you had unlimited funds, what piece of equipment would you add to your lineup?

I’m blessed with lots of good equipment here and a mechanic to take care of it. I would like to have a larger, more aggressive aerator like the AERA-vator, or a soil renovation unit like the RotoDairon or the Blec. We currently hire contractors for those services.