PRODUCER UPDATE

Sodmasters Turf Farm Uses Home Building Business to Bolster Sales

Sodmasters Turf Farm is a well-known sod producer in the state of Georgia, located in Montrose. In 2004 the owner Tom Bradbury purchased the historic farmland, Whitehall Plantation, which was formerly one of Georgia’s largest strictly agricultural plantations from William (Bill) Holmes. Holmes was a descendent of the original owner that purchased the property and he made improvements to the property, primarily on the grounds. He planted row crops and ran the land as a quail hunting plantation.

When the Bradbury’s purchased it, they named it Bradbury Farms and continued to grow row crops and still have quail hunts on the property to this day. Using the hunts for marketing and relationship building for the business, Bradbury has a deep passion for quail hunting. He will take clients bird hunting on their land in a wagon pulled by mules. His wildlife manager rides along on horseback with pointer dogs to hunt down the wild quail for the clients to shoot.

Bradbury also owns Smith Douglas Homes, a new home building company in Woodstock, GA. Using his expertise in homes, Bradbury and his wife restored the home and property in Montrose into the 21st Century. In 2014, he planted the first turfgrass sod fields, beginning Sodmasters Turf Farm.

Bradbury strategically used his two businesses to aid each other’s success. Upon building homes, he realized a nice lawn was necessary in order to close on a house. The Atlanta market of Smith Douglas Homes helped Sodmasters Turf Farm get off the ground, at one point supplying 75% of their sod to these new homes. Following these new home builds, their customer base broadened throughout the region.

James Johnson

The Montrose farm is about 8,700 acres with about 2,400 irrigated acres. Bradbury still owns and manages the farm but harvesting and most daily operations are handled by General Manager, James Johnson, who he hired in 2020. Johnson oversees the 1,000 acres of turfgrass they currently grow and said by Spring 2023 he hopes to have 1,300 acres of sod planted at the farm.

“I have farmed since I was old enough to get into a tractor to farm and manage land. I’ve always had a passion for agriculture. I got my Bachelors Degree in Diversified Agriculture from Abraham-Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) and then worked in a few different industry positions from fertilizer sales to the Department of Agriculture,” Johnson shared. “I did a little bit of everything, always working in agriculture. Then I had the opportunity to move back close to home and be able to farm and not have to travel by taking this position from Tom. I got into the turfgrass world and never really looked back.”

Johnson started with just overseeing the Georgia farm and then progressed within the company over the past two years. “We’re big on humility and doing what we’ll say we’ll do. Tom and I’s values are the same, we think the same and we just progressed from there,” he said.

In 2021, Sodmasters expanded operations out of state, purchasing 900 acres in Bennettsville, SC for sod production. Then, they opened Sodmasters Landscape Center in Woodstock, GA the same year. Sodmasters is in the process of acquiring farmland in Tennessee so they can expand operations beyond Georgia and South Carolina.

“The Bennettsville farm is going to service Smith Douglas Homes in Charlotte and Raleigh with grass and hopefully grow in that area,” Johnson said. “With the high demand for turfgrass right now, we’ve been very successful and we’re just riding the wave of it.”

He explained that the satellite farms they are adding are also a part of the marketing plan for Smith Douglas Homes. They will supply turfgrass for new builds in the South Carolina and Tennessee regions to get started and then the goal is for their customer base to expand in those regions beyond new builds. Johnson is overseeing the new farms and the managers they’re bringing on board. He said that they’re hopeful as they get going they’ll snowball off of demand as far as getting more trucks and managing production up to the same as Montrose’s production.

James Johnson loading grass.

“We brought on a great team in South Carolina. Brian Walker is the farm manager and Chris Kaiser is the assistant manager. I think they’re going to really help us go that extra mile,” Johnson said. “We’re big on getting the right people in the right seats and watching it unfold. They’re going to be a good team there helping us expand in the South Carolina and North Carolina markets that farm will service.”

Johnson also praised their agronomist, Kenny Neel. “He’s kind of like our mad scientist. He knows how chemicals and macros work with sod and now his agronomy plan has been cloned for our other farms which is a big key to their success.”

Licensed Turfgrass Varieties

Johnson attributes Sod Solutions for some of their recent success over the past few years at Sodmasters. “The turfgrasses have taken off in the past few years with record high numbers. We saw how it worked out in Georgia for getting started and spiraled into a lot more than we thought it would. It’s successful in making money.”

He said the Montrose farm is a base standard they’re using to try and clone the other farm operations in other states after. “We know what works and what doesn’t work. We’re really happy with all the varieties we are getting from Sod Solutions,” he said. “We’ll get it down pat in South Carolina and then hopefully we’ll close on this farm in Tennessee and that will be next and we’ll just keep on going from there. It’s seeing our success and trying to duplicate it.”

He is currently growing three zoysiagrass varieties, two St. Augustinegrasses, one centipede grass and two bermudagrasses at the farm in Montrose. Johnson said he likes Innovation Zoysiagrass because it’s right between a thin-bladed Emerald Zoysia and a wide-bladed EMPIRE Zoysia. “Customers tell us it’s smack in the middle and that’s the biggest thing for us because it fills that gap and it’s a really good grass. Now we’ve got our acres up for it.”

Johnson planted five acres of NorthBridge Bermudagrass three months ago in a 170-acre field surrounded by soybeans. “I have room to expand so I plan to expand to 100 acres of NorthBridge in the spring. I think it’s going to be our key factor in the sports arenas and think we’re going to do well not only with it in sports fields, but hopefully golf courses too.”

Sodmasters is the first sod farm in Georgia to plant Cobalt St. Augustine, which was just released from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research program earlier this year. Johnson planted three acres of Cobalt on Sept. 1, 2022.

Photos above are from the three acres of Cobalt St. Augustine being planted at Sodmasters Turf Farm on Sept. 1.

“I’m very pleased with it. We had some trouble with the truck getting here but when it got here the grass wasn’t stressed whatsoever and it looked great,” he said. “We have three acres that we’ll expand to 60 acres. The grass looks great and I’m excited about the cold tolerance on it, especially getting into the Atlanta market and maybe farther north.”

Sodmasters was also the first farm to complete Sod Solutions Accredited Licensed Turfgrass (SALT) program inspection, which was designed to preserve the genetic purity of a turfgrass variety while also ensuring a high-quality turfgrass is being produced using best practice methods.

“We completed it and now our St. Augustinegrass is in the SALT program. There was a lot of planning to get Cobalt in place and a lot of factors of when it would happen. But, when it did happen everybody at Sod Solutions was super helpful in getting the ball rolling,” he said.

Johnson worked with Gary Bradshaw from Sod Solutions to make sure the land was prepared, to make sure all of the fields were inspected properly and he assisted him with the certification paperwork. From there they made sure the trucks were lined up and everything else just fell into place in a short amount of time.

Johnson explained there is so much more technology in the turfgrass industry from new variety development and research to the technology in the tractors, mowers and harvesting machinery they use. “It’s just so much easier to show us our yield. You can map data throughout the field to see how much money we put into it to how much we get out of it.”

Johnson looks forward to watching the new farms come on and be successful. “We hold high values on our farm. We treat everyone as family and we go by it’s not who’s right, it’s what’s right for every family on the farm. As long as we can get these other farms going, keep Montrose successful and everybody keep those values, that’s what I want to see out there.”

For more information on Sodmasters Turf Farm, click here.

This article was written by Cecilia Brown.

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