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Grass is the crop on Ohio sod farm
By CELESTE BAUMGARTNER
Ohio Correspondent

COLLEGE CORNER, Ohio — The green, green grass of many homes (and golf courses) comes from Green Prairie Turf, Inc. While it’s not corn or beans, raising grass is farming.

John Ittel, who with his wife, Phyllis, owns Green Prairie, said he always had a certain respect for growing sod.

“In the fall of 1981 I planted 15-acres of bluegrass seed. It was mature and ready to harvest in 1983. There was no great marketing plan. Somehow word got out to a landscape firm that I had sod for sale. They bought the entire field.”

The rest is history, Ittel said. He believed that God had a hand in the business because land always became available as it was needed - the family eventually bought five farms; Green Prairie has 400 acres of sod and 20 acres of tree shrub nursery.

Ittel got started in the business while working fulltime at Cincinnati Bell, retiring in 1990. Green Prairie has always been a family business.

“Our immediate family is involved in the farm operation with my son, Jeff, making all of the day-to-day decisions,” John said. “My wife, Phyllis, and daughter, Heather (Greenwood), take care of office duties. Our oldest son, Jerry, left the farm last May after 18 years to become a pastor near Dayton. As for myself, I am winding down, mowing a little grass, loading a few trucks.”

Raising sod is hard, continuous work, Phyllis said. Even in winter employees are busy maintaining equipment. Sod may be harvested through January and February.

“Spring brings us into one of our two busiest seasons,” Phyllis said. “Along with harvesting and deliveries the fast growing grass must be mowed every two to three days.”

In summer, besides continuing with harvest and delivery, the fields must be irrigated in dry weather. Five ponds provide the water.

“Fall is our next busiest season for harvest and delivering of sod,” Phyllis said. “Along with deliveries we begin the process of fine tuning the fields in preparation of seeding and then the planting itself.”

Father and son agreed that preparing the ground to be seeded takes effort.

“Our biggest problem is being able to work the ground and getting it where it needs to be so it can be seeded,” John said. “It’s a constant problem of being sure it’s not too clotted or too fine,” “It varies with the amount of moisture during the year.”

The ground is chisel plowed. If there’s a lot of trash on top they plow it under with a moldboard plow, Jeff said. No-till is not an option on a sod farm.

“We have to tear the soil up,” Jeff said.

After plowing the ground is cultivated and then leveled; not flat like a tabletop, but smooth with no abrupt changes in the field.

“We fertilize five times a year, we just spoon feed it,” Jeff said. “The analysis changes each application depending on the time of year.”

Ideally, Green Prairie harvests a two-year-old crop for a premium product and to avoid loss of topsoil, Jeff said.

“We can push it and get it ready in a year but we choose not to do that,” Jeff said. “Between harvests the root mass builds organic matter in the soil.

“The ideal plan is to have half the acreage ready to be harvested while the other half of the acreage is in the process of growing, filling in, maturing,” he said. “We do lose some product to market, but the sod has more of a root system, it holds together. There’s also a positive for the farm, we take away less soil.”

They also keep soil loss to a minimum by rolling the sod just before harvesting it.

“We get it as flat as we can, and try to just skim the surface and take away as little dirt as possible” Jeff said. “The thinner you cut it, the quicker it will take root because it sends roots down from the crown of the seed head of the plant. The thinner you make it the more success you have with transplanting, I think.”

Another key to success is the $180,000, computer-controlled HarveStack bought in April 2005. It cuts, rolls and places the sod on a pallet with only one operator.

“It’s equipped with more computer sensors than grease fittings,” Jeff said. “The tractor steers automatically because the operator spends most of his time looking backwards.”

“This machine gives us the quality of cut that we look for, that we want to sell” he said. “I am thrilled with what this machine can do. It’s eased us up on our labor and we’re able to do more work.”

Jeff ended by saying: “The biggest challenge is providing the service and a quality product,” Jeff said. “Being a risk taker, and collecting money.”

Sounds like “regular” agriculture.

Green Prairie will be on the Butler County Farm/City tour October 14 and 15. For more information phone 513-887-3722 or visit www.butler.osu.edu

7/13/2006