Four hundred-forty acres is a lot of turfgrass to cultivate, care for, harvest and ship all around the country.
Welcome to life at Graff’s Turf.
Located 70 miles northeast of Denver, on the plains of Colorado in Fort Morgan, Graff’s Turf is a producer of turf blends for athletic fields of all levels — professional, collegiate, high school and municipal — as well as for golf courses and the residential and commercial markets.
Specifically regarding athletic fields, Graff’s has sent its turf all over the map, notably to such iconic sports venues as Sports Authority Field at Mile High (Denver Broncos); Coors Field (Colorado Rockies); Target Field (Minnesota Twins); Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City Royals); Wrigley Field (Chicago Cubs); Soldier Field (Chicago Bears); Haymarket Park (University of Nebraska); Notre Dame Stadium (University of Notre Dame); Spartan Stadium (Michigan State University); and TD Ameritrade Park (Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the College World Series).
Considering Graff’s Turf was started by Randy and Betsy Graff (parents of current co-owner James Graff) in 1979 as a modest, 120-acre sod farm, the company’s growth over the past 37 years has been exponential.
“When we started, I don’t know what goals we had other than, ‘Don’t screw up, keep the wheels on the bus and keep going forward,'” says James Graff, who, along with co-owner Marty Thiel, purchased the company from his parents in 2007. “But since that beginning, a lot of good things have happened to us. A lot of sports fields came our way; we’ve grown our clientele base by word of mouth and maintained that base for a long time, something we’re very proud of.”
Graff’s Turf began as a homegrown, family business. Randy Graff, the patron of Graff’s Turf, grew up in a family of Colorado dairy farmers. As a young man he came to love farm work, which led him to working at a local, family-run feed lot. But, as Randy soon learned, working as a non-family member in a family business had its negatives and limitations, particularly when it came to having room to grow.
Randy’s father-in-law, who at the time was selling John Deere tractors, suggested that Randy make a contact at a sod farm that needed a farm manager. Randy did so, and subsequently got the job; the sod farm also hired Randy’s wife, Betsy, to do the company finances. During their time at this company, Randy and Betsy learned every aspect of the sod business. In time, the sod farm closed and the Graffs decided to return closer to home, which was in the Fort Morgan area. They then found themselves with the opportunity to start Graff’s Turf. They started harvesting their 120-acre farm in 1979 and found some immediate success, as the Graffs already had contacts and established customers from their previous employers.
Sports turf came into the picture for Graff’s Turf in the 1990s (the company incorporated in 1996). The current location of Graff’s Turf was established in 2003, four years before James Graff and Thiel purchased the company from Randy and Betsy.
Plan comes together
James Graff never planned to take over the family business. Though he worked at Graff’s Turf in the summers as a teenager, he attended and graduated from Hastings College in Nebraska, with a degree in music. But after he finished college, he decided to return to Fort Morgan to help out at Graff’s Turf.
“[After college] I didn’t have the turf farm in my sights, originally,” Graff explains. “But I had an opportunity to come back and work in operations, to see what that was like. And I’m still here! Later, the opportunity presented itself to buy the farm, grow the company and add a business partner (Thiel). It all seemed to gel together very well. I’ve always leaned toward sales and marketing, and Marty has always been more involved in the production side.”
Thiel, also a Fort Morgan native, started working at Graff’s Turf for Randy Graff, as seasonal help in the summer. “About halfway through that first season, Randy pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re not going back to school – you’re staying here.’ So I started learning the business under Randy that first summer, and continued to do so every year, learning more and more and growing into a management role. That’s now turned into partial ownership.”
Before becoming ownership partners, James Graff and Thiel knew each other from working together during past summers, stacking rolls of sod.
Little did they know that, some years later, they’d be the running the company. “We’re not blood relatives, but we get along and fight like brothers,” Graff says of his relationship with Thiel.
Over the years, Graff’s Turf has become less and less of strictly a “family business,” which is by design, Graff says. “Over the years, we’ve had less and less family involved here. Our family has always said, ‘The best thing in the world is a family business. And the worst thing in the world is a family business.’ I’m extremely grateful for the years I got to work with my parents and my sister. There are pros and cons to operating a family business. Overall, I’m glad I got to experience it.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and Graff’s Turf has a staff of 12 full-time employees, which ramps up to around 25 during the farm’s busy season (March through November).
Down to the turf
The high-plain soil profile of eastern Colorado is sandy, which means that Graff’s Turf is a sand-based farm.
“We can harvest sod for sports fields [located] anywhere,” Thiel says.
Graff’s Turf also works with XtraGrass, a natural-grass turf reinforced with artificial fibers. Graff’s Turf’s project portfolio includes the first full-field installation of XtraGrass in the U.S., at Lakewood Memorial Field in Lakewood, Colorado.
Typically, it takes 12 to 18 months to grow turfgrass at Graff’s Turf. The turf starts growing about March 1 (depending on weather), and the growing season lasts until November. The business typically shuts down December through February. On the farm, the turfgrass undergoes fertilization, frequent watering, frequent mowing and subsequent vacuuming to remove the clippings. It’s harvested using specialized equipment and precisely cut to standardized sizes. Thiel says Graff’s Turf generally harvests three ways for customers: a split 4-foot roll, a solid 4-foot roll and a 2-foot-by-4-foot “small” roll. (Harvester foreman José Rubio has been with Graff’s for 18 years. “He takes very good care of us,” Thiel says proudly).
The Colorado climate, along with the sandy soil, is unique for turfgrass cultivation. But, “wind is miserable here,” Thiel explains. “At the same time, we have virtually zero disease and zero humidity. Insects aren’t a big deal, for the most part. We’re under a very good irrigation district, which means we have a plentiful water source.” Annually, Fort Morgan averages 14 inches of rain. “This year’s been exceptionally wet,” Thiel adds.
Working with field managers
A large part of both Thiel and Graff’s jobs involves interacting with athletic field managers. “Different field managers want and desire different levels of assistance,” Thiel says. “From our end, we’re a support team for field managers, whether it’s questions about the sod and how to establish it, or about the pluses and minuses of a turfgrass variety, how much to overseed with, or questions about irrigation, fertilization, fungicides, insecticides – all kinds of things. We’re available for anything they need.”
Both arms at Graff’s Turf – sales and production – rely on feedback from athletic field managers at all levels. “Understanding both ends of the whole [turf-growing] process is critical,” Graff states. “We want to know how our grass is performing. We want to know how field managers are maintaining it and how they’re treating it. There’s a lot of faith they have to have in us.
“A high school practice field is just as critical to us as any professional sports surface. Think about how many hours of play are put into those high school fields…. That sports turf manager might need help. And some of those might be coaches who don’t necessarily have the background (in turfgrass). Those people are just as important to us as any client we have. They should have as much help and support as they can get.”
Thiel and Graff travel across the country and stay in constant communication with field managers. Thiel says he hears a lot of the same questions regarding turfgrass. “As far as production goes, anymore it’s, ‘What are the varieties you have, and why?’ ‘What’s your fertilizer program?’ ‘Can you customize toward what we do?’ We also get a lot of questions about our sand.”
“There’s a lot to meld together,” Graff says, “from what has to be done in production to produce a grass that is strong, knitted together and dense. There’s a lot that goes into this process. But nothing else feeds your soul more than seeing a satisfied customer, or receiving positive customer feedback.”
One way Graff’s Turf stays in touch with its end users is at industry events. Graff’s Turf is an annual attendee at the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) Conference & Exhibition. Also, Graff served on the 2015 STMA Board of Directors as the commercial vice president.
“STMA [has] one of the finest conferences you’ll ever find, and it has some of the greatest people you’ll ever meet,” Graff says. “The education program they have is second-to-none. They keep the information fresh every year, they do a really good job and the attendance keeps growing every year, which, from a vendor standpoint, is what you’re after. You want to be where the people are.”
Venturing Into Warm-Season Turfgrass
With the idea of expanding its turfgrass variety offerings, Graff’s Turf began growing bermudagrasses in 2014. This was a bit of a radical move, as warmseason turfgrasses were previously foreign territory to the company.
“We’re always looking for something different,” Graff’s Turf co-owner Marty Thiel says. “Seven or eight years ago, we made contact with Oklahoma State University and Sod Solutions and put in some test samples on one of our fields to see what we could get, regarding bermudagrasses. We got laughed at a lot! But over the next five years, we kind of dialed in to what Oklahoma State does as far as research and their varieties, seeing what would work well here in Colorado. Bermudagrass uses less water, it’s wear tolerant and the new and improved varieties are very nice to walk on. So that’s what started that ball rolling.”
Graff’s is now licensed to grow Northbridge and Latitude 36.
“We can produce Latitude 36, but for the most part we choose to keep it simple and stick with the Northbridge,” Thiel says. “It took us some time to get the [bermudagrass] field propagated, it was different from what we were doing. It’s taken off extremely well.”
No matter which end of the turfgrass spectrum you’re on — growing or managing — certain issues come up frequently, like wear tolerance. As field managers well know, most of the field can look great, but there’s always those smaller sections – soccer and lacrosse goalmouths, between the hash marks on football fields, for example – that reveal just how much use a field is getting. Growers, like Graff’s Turf, understand this and consider wear tolerance one of the most important turfgrass characteristics.
“People take inventory of a field. For example, if a coach or parent walks onto a field and if they see worn areas where there’s no grass, what they equate in their mind is probably not favorable of that field, as far as even being a safe surface,” Graff explains. “So on our end, we’ve got to select varieties that give the field manager a chance and set them up to be successful.”
Graff and Thiel take into account several factors when it comes to selecting what turfgrass varieties to grow. “We have to weigh out our experience against testing data,” Graff explains. “We look at what we see and experience here on the farm, and we look at what our customers see and experience on their fields. We then have to dovetail that with what the data says. I think you’d fail miserably if you made all of your decisions off data, and, conversely, I think you’d fail if you made all of your decisions off customer opinions. You’re taking in a conglomerate of information all the time to end up with the best grass you can grow.”
Another critical industry topic, keeping in mind increasing water restrictions in the western half of the U.S., is the debate over natural versus synthetic surfaces. Both Graff and Thiel say that safety should be always be the number one concern on a playing field, regardless of the surface.
“I see the push for safe playing surfaces,” Graff says. “What does that mean?”
That could mean, in some instances, depending on if athletes are playing on fields too much or because the fields host too many programs or too many kids, that the safest playing surface could be artificial. In all fairness, that’s better than a worn down, unsafe natural field that’s getting a bad name because it can’t keep up.
“But I also feel that wherever natural grass can thrive, that will always be the preference. When it comes to safety, temperature, touch and feel and aesthetics, people like to be on something living.”
Thiel feels that a “well-maintained, natural surface is the best surface you can play sports on. Bar none.” He also points out how both increased technology and knowledge is helping field managers across the country grow better-looking and longer-lasting turfgrass.
“You’ve got people like Jerad Minnick and Jamie Mehringer [who] are out helping the smaller facilities improve and enabling them to continue providing great surfaces,” Thiel says. “There’s more people in the country playing sports now, so there’s more of a need for these athletic facilities to become income venues, versus just athletic fields. If you’re a school district and you can rent out (a field) on the weekends for soccer, or other events, and it requires artificial turf to do so, you’re going to do that. We’re seeing facilities have a need for more hours – more than ever. But I think we’re better tooled today to make natural fields last longer.”
Gazing into the crystal ball
Looking ahead to the future, Graff’s Turf faces several challenges – as do all turf and sod farms – to keep its foothold in the turfgrass growing market.
“The next 10 years are going to be a very interesting challenge because of water issues,” Thiel says. “What’s going to happen in Colorado regarding water? We don’t have that answer; we don’t have a crystal ball. Every single day we’re getting creative, whether it’s producing the bermudagrass, working with XtraGrass, venturing into synthetic laws or even vegetable production as a sideline with our turf production.”
From the sales perspective, Graff says, the challenges revolve around the basic principle of any business: customer service. “The challenges become how do you continue to maintain taking care of your customers, especially considering the distance between us and some of our customers. How do you do that safely, do what’s best for the turf to get it there on time and get it there conveniently?
“We have to be ready for what we don’t know we need to be ready for.”
Ironically, when thinking about finding success in the future, Thiel looks to a lesson he learned early on from Randy Graff. “Randy once told me, ‘It’s really easy to get it, it’s more difficult to hold onto it.’ That translates to many different things – our customers, our employees, our farm ground, our machines. Can you go out, find a new client and keep that client? Can you find a new product and really make it work?”
When considering the company’s future, James Graff always goes back to the foundation of the business.
“What’s best for the grass is always what’s done first,” he says. “From first seeding and growing through the harvesting, our standards exceed our customers’. People might visit our farm and walk our fields, and that becomes the deciding factor whether or not to buy from us.
“There’s not a brochure, sales presentation or PowerPoint presentation you can give that will sell a project like someone just walking across our production fields, hearing about our process and what’s gone into growing that field for the last 12 months. But it always comes back to what’s best for the grass, first.”