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UF keeps pace with industry in the science of growing grass

Cindy Spence

Grady Miller (352) 392-7942

GAINESVILLE—Used to be, if you wanted to manage a golf course, all you needed to know was how high to mow and when to turn on the sprinklers.

Not anymore.

“The days of just mowing and whatever happens, happens are over,” said Grady Miller, a turfgrass researcher and faculty adviser for the University of Florida’s turfgrass science program.

These days, turfgrass is big money and big science — and a lot more than golf. Turfgrass is a $7.4 billion industry in Florida. And the science of growing grass is changing all the time.

Sophisticated new mowers can cost up to $25,000. Satellites help grass grow, too, with global positioning systems locating, for instance, insect infestations on golf courses. Such technology allows more limited use of pesticides, but then pesticides, too, are changing. New fertilizers, retractable domes over sports fields, and irrigation needs add to the complexity of a task as seemingly simple as growing grass.

Then there’s the business side of growing grass. Today’s turf managers need the computer and business skills recently added to UF’s turfgrass science program. It is not unusual for a superintendent of an upper-end golf course to manage a million-dollar-a-year budget, Miller said

And with 1,400 golf courses, more than any other state, Florida is the land of opportunity for turfgrass managers. Thirty new courses opened last year, according to the National Golf Foundation, and golf courses alone probably could hire all of UF’s current turfgrass science graduates.

Non-golf opportunities are booming, too. Turf managers are in demand for airports, athletic fields, resorts and theme parks, landscape businesses and even cemeteries, where knowing which fertilizers to use is important to avoid staining tombstones.

“There’s a severe shortage of well-trained sports turf managers for athletic fields,” said Miller, “but no shortage of opportunities for our turfgrass graduates.

“I can easily place 50 students in internships every summer and that’s not limited to Florida,” said Miller, who teaches and conducts research in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “We even had one intern at Augusta National last year.”

Elite courses like Augusta, where the legendary Masters Tournament is played each year, have high expectations for the quality of their turfgrass. Similarly, they have high expectations of the people who care for the turfgrass, increasing the need for educating today’s turf managers, Miller said.

Athletic fields, too, are more particular about turf these days. For World Cup soccer in 1994, the Pontiac Silverdome even grew its turf off-site, transported it to the dome in containers, then put it back together for the elite soccer matches.

“With Augusta and other premier golf courses, there’s a whatever-it-takes attitude,” Miller said. “And, if the Super Bowl is next weekend, you’re going to have nice turf. The turf is important for professional tournaments and if they have to, they’ll bring in greens and tee boxes.

“But somebody’s got to be able to know when to do that, how to do it and how to take care of it.”

Miller says UF is uniquely positioned to train turf managers. Students can get turfgrass science courses either in Gainesville or at research and education centers in Milton and Fort Lauderdale. Florida’s year-round growing season and sports seasons help, too.

UF has invested in a state-of-the-art turfgrass Envirotron, which allows for precise turf research in computer-controlled greenhouses. The turfgrass program has become a multi-disciplinary team that includes faculty in turfgrass cultivation and management, insect and disease management and business management. Lastly, the internship opportunities are nearly unlimited.

“We’ve got spring training for baseball, several strong college programs in soccer, baseball and football and then golf all year,” Miller said. “We’re managing turf year-round in Florida and not too many places are doing that.”

The changing science and growing industry add up to more jobs than there are graduates to fill them, Miller said. Salaries are high, up to $32,000 to start, with opportunities for rapid advancement. Ask Barry Greenwalt. He’s one of two UF graduates who, a year and a half after graduation, are now golf course superintendents.

“Between the traffic on a golf course and the weather, trying to grow grass is very, very difficult,” said Greenwalt, the superintendent at Gainesville’s Ironwood Golf Course. “I had a friend at a golf course in Fort Lauderdale who came from a northern university but the turf is completely different here so he’s had to learn so much. Growing grass is different in Florida and since I wanted to work in Florida, I’m glad I went to UF.”

The Ironwood course is trying to become an Audubon Sanctuary, a designation that restricts pesticide use, further complicating Greenwalt’s job. But again, the UF training helps, because he was schooled in cultural practices that can help with pest problems without increased use of pesticides.

“Ninety percent of our graduates take golf course positions, because they want to, not because they have to,” Miller said. “Golf courses are the No. 1 employer and then the landscape industry. This is urban agriculture with strong potential in Florida, with its rapid home and business construction.”

Opportunities for recreational and athletic fields are on the rise, too, Miller said. The National Sports Turf Managers Association is in the process of developing a certification program, similar to what golf has had for years, that would increase professionalism.

“Sports and athletics are at an all-time high in terms of attendance at events and TV exposure,” Miller said. “so the need to hire well-trained turf managers is out there.”