grass

The big grass roll-up

September 14, 2012: 5:00 AM ET

Growing, harvesting, and installing sod: inside an industry of impermanence.

By Paul Kvinta, contributor

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FORTUNE -- In California's Coachella Valley, acres of emerald-green Bermuda grass grow in the desert. At sunrise, late this fall, a crew led by Tom Stafford from West Coast Turf will begin harvesting 100,000 square feet of it with a turf cutter. Like a garden Zamboni, the machine will glide across the green expanse, spooling up strips of turf, leaving behind a sandy brown trail.

They will load the rolls onto several dozen semi trucks and race to Los Angeles to replace the field at the Rose Bowl, which will have been chewed up all season. By the time Stafford arrives, a demolition team will have ripped up the field, finishing what the linebackers started. A laser-leveling crew will make things nice and even. Stafford's team can install a new field in just 22 hours.

The grass won't always root before the games begin, but that doesn't matter. Each of the 1½-inch-thick, 3½- by 35-foot strips of sod weighs 2,500 pounds. Those linemen aren't going to move the stuff.

That's the thing about farm-raised grass: Wherever you see it -- and you see it everywhere -- it looks as if it's always been there. But it hasn't. Turf grass covers 50 million acres of this country, an area larger than Nebraska. The industry generates roughly $60 billion a year and more than 800,000 jobs; a third of that revenue and nearly half the jobs come from golf, even though the nation's 1,600 courses account for only about 4% of the grass. West Coast Turf grows 3,000 acres of it on four farms in California and two in Arizona. Some 60% of its revenue comes from the sale and installation of athletic turf. The company provides playing surfaces for most of the pro and college football, baseball, and soccer teams across the West. It has installed the fields for eight Super Bowls.

One of the great ironies is that all of this grass is coming from the desert, places like the Coachella Valley, where whiptail scorpions roam and temperatures can climb to 126° F (the music festival of the same name is nearby too). John Foster, who started West Coast Turf in 1990, prefers growing in the desert. With a dependable supply of water from wells and the Colorado River -- via the All-American Canal -- he doesn't have to worry about a problem other sod growers have to face, which is too much water from precipitation. "We have a controlled environment, so to speak," he says.

Some situations you can't control. The pregame on-field football warmups are the worst, says Stafford. "Teams like USC, Nebraska, your big programs, they bring a lot of players," he says. "They're huge guys, all wearing cleats. It's like cattle grazing."

This story is from the September 24, 2012 issue of Fortune.

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