Checkoff would let turf growers invest in promotion
A significant chunk of money from a proposed sod industry checkoff would be used to fund research and promotion in states where the money was collected, supporters of the effort said this month.
Up to half of all money produced by the checkoff — 1/10th of a penny per square foot of grass — would go toward sod promotion and research in the state where the revenue was collected, said Casey Reynolds, executive director of Turfgrass Producers International, a trade association of sod farmers in the United States and more than 30 other countries.
“It would be a game-changer,” he said.
Reynolds, along with a committee of sod producers, has been selling the checkoff program across the industry since 2017. The USDA is reviewing the proposal before publishing it on the Federal Register for a public comment period. After that, sod producers nationwide would be able to vote on the checkoff program.
“It’s not a program yet,” Reynolds said. “Right now it’s like a baby in the womb.”
A sod checkoff would help the industry fight a growing disinterest in natural grass among younger homeowners seeking to avoid the chores of lawn maintenance. More than three-quarters of respondents between 18 and 34 years old polled by the industry said they had no desire to maintain a lawn, according to literature by the checkoff effort.
A checkoff would also pay for marketing and research into the benefits of natural grass, said Doug Lechlider, a turf farmer in Gaithersburg, Md., who is helping to promote the program to regional producers.
“All we hear are the downsides to (turfgrass), the negatives,” he said. “There’s not enough money out there at this point to put out the good points of turf, and to do that research so that we have that good information.”
Reynolds’s trade association, for instance, recently responded to a video published by The New York Times in August claiming the nation’s lawns are choking the environment and draining national aquifers.
The piece advocated for the elimination of traditional lawns nationwide. The association’s response highlighted the benefits of lawns, including runoff prevention, carbon capturing and oxygen production.
Artificial turf has also cut into the sod industry, Lechlider said. He pointed to Montgomery County schools, which he said now favor artificial turf on athletic fields. Artificial fields are even referred to as “turf fields” — something the real turf industry should have fought to prevent, he said.
“We’ve been so silent that we’ve even managed to lose our identity,” he said. “Because that’s not turf; that’s plastic.”
A sod checkoff would also help lobbying efforts against regulations and programs that challenge the industry such as fertilizer bans and lawn removal incentives.
A checkoff would produce between $14-18 million yearly, Reynolds said. It would be the largest turfgrass checkoff program in the world. Revenue by state is harder to calculate because the USDA doesn’t track sod sales on a year-to-year basis.
Reynolds and Lechlider said they’ve also made an effort to correct a common misunderstanding among producers that a checkoff program is government-run.
Although the USDA approves and administers the checkoff, its rules and its existence are decided by the farmers themselves, Reynolds said.
A timeline on the checkoff effort’s website — sodcheckoff.org — suggests a vote on the program could happen in the spring, though no date has been set, Reynolds said.
“There’s a lot of work you have to go through to get one up for a vote, and that’s where we are at right now,” he said. “It’s supposed to take a long time so you can raise awareness among farmers.”