Green Acres Turf Farm, Inc. was an expansion of a longtime successful farming operation in Furman, SC to include sod production. Two brothers, Alex and Gary Youmans, with the blessing and support from their father, Bob, and uncle, Lynn, ventured into turfgrass operations in 2000.
Prior to adding this portion of their business, the original farm dates back to the 1700s. Eight generations of the Youmans family have continued farming in the same location over the past 300 years. They’ve grown row crops, such as corn, cotton, soybeans, and other vegetables as well as specialty crops like watermelon and cantaloupes. They also raised catfish from 1988-2001 and from 1973-2000 they ran an independent fertilizer, seed and chemical dealership.
Gary explained that it was important they received approval from older generations as they set out on this new opportunity for the farm into sod production. His father passed away in 2015 and “Daddy” Lynn is 91 years old and still comes out to the farm every day. He explained growing up under their leadership taught him about survival as they made it through the many hardships that farming families witnessed in the 1980s. “Every minute, every penny and every day counted. That’s how the people who made it through that era of the 80s and 90s got through,” Gary said.
Gary and Alex are very hands-on in running the farm. Alex’s primary role focuses on the production of row crops and turfgrass. He also oversees all the turfgrass certification and fertilization. Gary works with human resources, accounting, sales, logistics and harvest management. He explained that he has to particularly plan for having enough grass to meet demands, especially for being a farm that grows several different varieties of turfgrass.
Gary also plans for driver training, truck maintenance and makes sure they’re in compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. He said there are a lot of insurance, safety and regulations that they oversee as a part of running one of the largest farms in the state.
23 Years in Turf
“When we started in 2000, we were on the upside of the cycle. We grew and expanded it to the top of 2008 and when it all came crashing down and we shrank to about half the size of what it was. We started to recover in 2012 and we’ve ridden it back up and tried to manage inventory and production based on market share and have shifted varieties with demand,” Gary said. Now, Green Acres sells over 30 million square feet of grass annually.
He explained managing inventory and products takes a great deal of thought since most of their grasses have a 6-month growing season but require a 12-month marketing season. “Everyone’s got to produce two acres for one, and we’re dealing with clientele who expect sod by tomorrow or next week. Our customer base is what we refer to as ‘The 24/7 Generation’ who are used to going to a drive-through or a big box store 24/7 a day.”
He explained that pushes their farm, and most other sod farms in this area of the country to maintain a 25-week growing season. Gary also said to be successful, you need to offer something different.
When EMPIRE® Zoysiagrass was initially released, Gary remembered there being plenty of other St. Augustinegrasses for sale, but not many zoysias. “EMPIRE was truly something different in our section of the transition zone. It’s gradually become a dominant grass in this market.”
He explained that EMPIRE has a beautiful, unique color during dormancy, much different than other varieties, almost what he’d describe as like wheat grass.
Gary also said that Celebration® Bermudagrass quickly latched on in the golf market in their region and has continued to perform well. “Some advantages for the end-users are Celebration’s shade tolerance, it requires less water and it is very tough when it comes to high traffic and resistance to pests.”
He said that Celebration was one of the first grasses the end user would just call and order before it was specified. “It doesn’t matter what a university says or what’s in a study, it’s proven when the rubber hits the road for these grasses and how they perform several years down the road.”
“It takes a long time to vet a variety to see where it stands. I’m very excited about the potential of Cobalt® St. Augustinegrass,” he said. Green Acres has a nursery plot of this new grass released out of Texas A&M last year that they’re observing before expanding.
Gary explained he’s just as concerned about the satisfaction of a customer who buys one pallet versus someone who spends a million dollars. “You don’t compartmentalize dollars because the product and service are always needed in order to meet a customer’s expectations.”
His aspiration is for the staff to remain focused and guide Green Acres towards a successful future by continually improving and adapting to the changing environment. “The market, regulations and economics are always changing. We’ve got to be very nimble,” he said. “We want to continue to focus on higher-end, top-of-the-market jobs so to speak. We want to do the best jobs with the best varieties for this market and identify the customers that appreciate that top-of-line service by giving them the best product at a fair price, with the best value.”
“We’ve always been very interested in equipment and technology throughout our history of the farm,” Gary said. From the first automated fertilizers and grain dryers in the 1970s, Green Acres has been leveraging the tools that help make them succeed. Gary explained automatic harvesters have been a huge change for their business as they don’t have to depend on local labor to get the job done.
The farm implemented Turf Logistics, a farm management software with e-commerce integration that streamlines communications and logistics from harvesting to delivery. “Any time a change is made to an order, the harvesters can get updated via the app. Given our poor cell phone service at times, we’d probably have to drive to update the harvester, but Turf Logistics updates the harvesters immediately.”
“Technology sounds like a complicated word, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Given the fact you don’t have to have someone with an engineering degree, you just need someone with common sense that likes to work with their hands and that is willing to be computer literate and get a little dirty.”
Green Acres Turf also designed a website as a part of the business’ growth model. While every farm may not need a website, Gary said they are able to reach their customers directly by having one. When people need sod, they can easily look them up to find it and order it directly to the job site. “If you want to grow a premium product and sell it to the top of the market, websites are a tool to do that,” he added.
Over the past few years, Alex’s son, Kevin, Gary’s son, Grant, and Gary’s son-in-law, Tanner Hinson, have all taken different roles at Green Acres.
“Everyone is busy and everyone pulls their weight and does their share. If it were not for them, we would be looking for an exit plan but it’s a great source of pride that they have interest in it,” Gary said. “They all bring new ideas to Alex and me, just like we brought ideas to our dad and uncle. We welcome their input and are glad they’re invested to be a part of this.”
Kevin, who’s worked there the longest, studied accounting and manages the farm’s internal accounting. He’s also heavily involved in fertilization and field preparation for turfgrass and row crops.
Grant handles payroll, employment taxes and human resources. He also plays a big role in harvesting and overseeing the maintenance of harvesting equipment, especially for turf operations.
Grant and Kevin both have Commercial Drivers Licenses (CDLs) and help pick up fertilizers from suppliers, move equipment on the fields and help with other various administrative tasks Alex and Gary need help with.
Tanner, who is married to Gary’s daughter Haley, works as the farm’s office administrator overseeing sales, scheduling, truck routing, collections, IT issues in the office and more. He also helps with the logistical side of the business that Gary primarily handled for a long time.
“All three of them are basically extensions of Alex and myself,” Gary said. “You can’t do this if you don’t have a passion for it. I think it’s safe to say all three of them have a passion for what they do and a drive and accountability for their work.”
Gary also praised their longtime employees, including Billy Jo Williams, who was the first truck driver they ever hired and someone they still rely on every day at the farm. He said they’re also fortunate for their many extended family members who work at the farm and Robert Mixon, who has been with the business since before they started growing sod and has a lot of experience in turf.
“Robert has been with us since before the first seed went in the ground and touches every aspect of the operation. He’s certainly also an extension of Alex and myself. He treats this business like his own and even though we’re not related by blood, he is family,” Gary said.
Gary, Alex and Grant all live in houses on the farm with their wives; Linda, Tonya and Stephanie. Kevin and Tanner both live in Bluffton with their wives; Erin and Haley.
“It takes a lot of understanding from the family about long, late hours and early mornings. But they don’t complain. They do it because we love it and we’re thankful for their support,” Gary said. The family also makes connections that have led to finding good employees and they all help represent the farm at community events.
Gary is excited about the talent and opportunities the younger generations they’ve brought on board will bring to the farm. “I think we have a really good mixture of youth and experience. It’s part of the continuation plan. Having Grant, Tanner and Kevin is great, and we hope they’ll be with us for a longer time and bridge the gap between myself and Alex.”
For more information on Green Acres Turf click here.
This article was written by Cecilia Brown.