Return of the sodbusters
By Tim Kalinowski
When the first European settlers moved to the prairies, they were often nicknamed sodbusters due to the houses they made out of turf because they had no wood. The name has stuck around, but the sod house as a living concept has long gone the way of the dodo bird.
However, there is at least one place in southern Alberta where the sodding tradition still exists in modern form, at Silver Lake Sod Farm 2017 Ltd. near Seven Persons.
Founded over 40 years ago by Dave and Sonia Moore, Silver Lake Sod Farm has become one of the most respected names in the industry in western Canada. Using the latest in modern techniques, sod varieties and harvesting technology, Silver Lake Sod Farm is known for its quality. This great success has not come with sacrifice, however.
“When I was young and wanted to get started in farming, it was very tough,” remembers Dave Moore. “Everyone who was getting into it at that time in the early 1980s, with the high interest rates and the very poor commodity prices, I was watching all my young, fellow farmers who were trying to get into it all going belly-up. I thought I would take give sod farming a whirl because I knew no other way the farm was going to work for the amount of land I had.
“I started with nothing. We had one old, sod harvester, and that was it. I didn’t have any other equipment or anything, and I slowly built up and bought one piece of equipment here and there as I went along until I got what I have now.”
In the early years, Sonia ran the harvester and the phones to drum up customers. Dave stacked, mowed, watered, delivered and installed.
“It has been a good gamble for us,” says Dave. “But to get into the market I also had to install sod as I was growing it. That’s how I got my name out there. In the beginning, nobody really wanted to buy off me. There were other, more established farms out there. It was hard for me to break into the business; so I did it by growing my own product and installing it. By throwing in a lot of sweat and labour into the price, that was how I got my foot in the door.”
Dave’s daughter Christy remembers the long hours and the sacrifices her parents made to get the business to where it is today.
“I believe my dad has built a really successful business,” Christy says. “He has done so much work to get to this point. I grew up seeing the sacrifices he did for us, and now he is so willing to help pass this business onto us. It is so much of an honour for me to be part of this business now. More than I can ever say.”
And Christy’s husband Chris Grunwald is also now a junior partner in the enterprise.
“If you told me I was going to be farming 20 years-ago, I would say you are crazy,” he says with a laugh. “I fell into this because of my wife. I got asked to come out and help, and then I made a decision to come out here permanently.
“I have absolutely loved being out here,” he adds. “I love farming with Dave, and I am excited every day to get up and do it.”
Dave is more than pleased to have a new generation take over the farm, especially now he has built the business up to the point where he is producing the best quality sod of his career and has all the best equipment.
“The labour intensity has gone down so much,” he says. “The equipment is so much better. It’s bigger, faster and all robotics. We used to have to manually stack, now the machinery does it all on its own.
“They are also getting the varieties now to where there is less and less water required to keep the plant healthy.
“It’s a much better product than what used to be out there. Now everything we grow is dwarf varieties, and they naturally have a deeper, darker, richer natural colour so you can have a nice lawn without pumping all that fertilizer into it.”
Dave says don’t get him wrong; sod growing is still a heckuva a lot of work. The turf has to be mowed and watered every day, and harvest goes on throughout the entire season from spring thaw to fall freeze up. There are constant phone calls to customers to set up product drop-offs and installations.
Once harvested, sod can’t wait too long to be transplanted, he says.
“With the long hauls, we’ll cut late in the evening and drive all night. When the driver arrives at the destination, he will catch a motel or something. At seven in the morning he is at his drop, and the ground crews will start installing immediately.”
And all of Silver Lake Sod Farm’s best-laid plans are subject to the whims of weather and rain.
“With rain it gets too wet to pick up,” explains Grunwald. “You have to change the schedule, everything you were planning that week gets backed up.”
“When we are taking orders, we are asking when people are ready for it,” adds Christy. “Because we have to make sure it’s going to be picked up and delivered when they can install it. Rain is really my nightmare scenario, and it usually means a lot of rescheduling and a lot of additional work.”
Dave refuses to send sod out to a customer that is second rate.
“We are the right-sized farm to have consistently high end product,” he says. “There are lots of good farms out there, but some of them are absolutely huge.
“There is no way in the world they can have the quality control that we do on every single roll. We watch every single roll that goes out to make sure every blade of grass is standing up like its supposed to. If there is a nick or brown spot, it gets kicked out.”
Dave says what he has tried to convey to his daughter and son-in-law all these years is to take pride in what you do, and always do the job right the first time.
“True success comes from passion. This is not just a job to get up and go to; it’s a passion. I love growing this grass.
“I am so fortunate to do it, and I can walk across my crop with bare feet. You can’t do that with any other crop. It looks good. It smells good. Everything about it, I like.”