Sod farms try to outlast housing bust

Dannie Barteet drives the sod harvester at Ravenswood Plantation on a recent Saturday while son Joseph Daniel Barteet (left) and James Millar stack squares of sod in the rear. It was the first time in about three weeks that Barteet had cut sod for an order.

Ravenswood Plantation on Johns Island once offered views of freshly mowed grass as far as the eye could see. Now trees and shrubs are popping up here and there, signs of trouble and change.

Gone is the daily sight of workers loading sod into trucks. The rolling irrigation sprinklers that resemble giant crawling insects sit idle. Several fields are sprouting corn instead of centipede and St. Augustine grass. The office is shuttered and the phone is disconnected.

When the housing market tanked, so did sod sales. The grass is not yet greener on the back side of the recession.

Like countless other businesses dependent on real estate, turf farms across South Carolina took a big hit when the recession began in late 2007. There are fewer of them now, and the ones that remain have turned in part to other crops and ventures to replace the income.

Dannie Barteet is still selling sod from time to time, but nothing like he was when home sales and construction were on a roll. At its peak, Ravenswood was moving out eight to 10 truckloads a day from its 250 acres of grass.

He and his wife ran the farm together, raised children there, and still live on the property.

"When sales started declining, it was a tough pill to swallow," Barteet said. "I didn't stick around. I like to eat."

About 18 months ago, the 49-year-old went to work for Blue Flame gas company. His wife also took a job as office manager for a church.

"I'm not after pity," Barteet said. "I'm fine. If what you're doing is not working, you've gotta change."

Turf farms large and small across the state are in the same boat.

Sales at Super-Sod plummeted from 200 million square feet a year to 100 million as real estate sales and construction imploded. About 100 workers had to be laid off.

Super-Sod is the leading division of Lakeland, Ga.-based Patten Seed Co., a family-run business for more than a century. With 18,000 acres in sod, the company is one of the largest turf operations in the world, according to CEO Jim Roquemore. Super-Sod has sales and locations in the Southeast from northern Florida to Virginia.

"Housing starts are down over 60 percent; therefore, the sod business is down over 60 percent in the Southeast. A number of farms have ceased to do business," Roquemore said.

Legare Farms on Johns Island has shrunk its sod fields from 150 acres to less than 100.

"When things started getting bad, we let the cows back on the sod fields, reverted it back to pasture, quit mowing and maintaining," said Helen Legare, who also is executive director of the South Carolina Sod Producers Association.

Landscape companies were buying most of Legare's sod, and most of it was being laid around new homes. The average sale used to be six to 10 pallets -- a pallet is 500 square feet -- and that has dropped to one or two pallets.

"We still have several landscapers buying from us, but they're doing patchwork," she said.

Before the recession, there were as many as 30 association members in the state. Now there are about 20, Legare said.

Legare Farms is a ninth- generation family farm operating since 1725. Legare said the farm couldn't have survived had it been totally dependent on its grass.

"We've kind of gone into the food -- chickens, beef, pork and the vegetables for the CSA program. If we had only been in turf and landscape, we would be bankrupt. We happened to diversify and save ourselves."

Super-Sod has had to adapt from being "pretty profitable to trying to break even," Roquemore said. The company sold 1,000 acres and took another 2,000 out of turf production and put it into corn and soybeans.

At Henry Farms on St. Helena Island, the farm converted close to 300 of its 1,000 sod acres to row crops about three years ago. The farm grows soybeans, wheat, corn, broccoli, squash and zucchini.

"At one time we had three tractor-trailers loads (of sod) running up and down the highway. Now we're down to one trailer," said Colton Rucker, the office manager.

Historically, sod has been a better source of revenue than crops because prices don't fluctuate, he said.

"With row crops you depend on the market. It depends on brokers being able to get orders so you can fill them. Now I've got crops in the field I'm waiting to sell."

Both Legare and Henry farms have seen a slight increase in demand for sod this year. In a recent week, Legare sold four tractor-trailer loads, the most in two years.

"I think it will come back because people will still be coming to Charleston, whether we want them or not," Legare said. "I think the whole state of South Carolina will come back."

If it does, she said, "we'll sell some cows, close the gate and start mowing and spraying again."

Roquemore is less optimistic.

"I don't see the real volume picking up for at least three years, and I never see it coming back to the big boom."

Barteet said his eyes reveal the state of the economy.

"I can judge it by seeing the number of sod trucks on the road. When things were crazy, you couldn't count the sod trucks on I-26 between Charleston and Columbia."

Reach Teresa Taylor at 37-4886.