How to start up a turf supplying business

Pile of rolled turf on a lawn

Pile of rolled turf on a lawnIf you're knowledgeable about growing turf and prepared to work outside in all weathers, then a turf supply venture might be the right option. Check out our practical guide for help with starting and running your own turf supply business.

Research your target market

Estimating demand

It's important to find out whether there is enough local demand for your turf supply business. Be aware that the turf supply industry is a competitive one, made more so during periods of economic downturn and when the housing market slumps. You will be competing not only against small, local concerns but also against national turf farms that are willing to accept orders from all over the country. Many turf suppliers now offer online sales and promise next day delivery. The market is particularly competitive for the more general purpose grades of turf which is also sold by many non-specialists like garden centres, builders merchants and DIY sheds.

Check out the competition in your area to identify how many other turf suppliers are already operating. Bear in mind that, as well as cultivating turfgrass, some suppliers and farmers strip existing pastures for turf.

It may be that you will only be competing directly against a small number of turf businesses because you will be growing a highly specialised type of turf - for example for sports grounds and stadiums. If this is the case you will need to find out not only how many competitors you are likely to have, but also the level of demand in your niche market.

Things to consider when you're checking out your competitors' operating practices include:

  • the type of turfgrass cultivated
  • the quality of the turf - does the grower comply with the Turfgrass Growers Association quality standards
  • the range of services offered, for example ground preparation and installation
  • the prices charged, including delivery costs
  • how quickly orders can be fulfilled

Your potential customers

Spend some time approaching local businesses and organisations that might be keen to use your services. For example local builders regularly need turf for new housing estates and one-off developments. Developers of retail and industrial parks may need turf as part of their landscaping plans. Your local authority might be looking for a turf supplier for parks, play areas and other amenity areas. Don't forget to draw potential customers' attention to the quality features of your turf - for example that it is very hard wearing and weed free, can thrive in shady places, or that it keeps its colour well during the winter months.

Research current trends, plus legal and tax issues

Establish your customer profiles

Your market

It is likely that your customers will be members of the public as well as local businesses and organisations (possibly including local authorities). When you first start up, you'll probably find that most of your customers will be domestic home owners. You will also hope to build up a customer base of commercial customers - these might include:

  • sports grounds, sports centres and stadiums
  • public and private parks and ornamental gardens
  • recreation grounds
  • local authorities and government departments (for amenity and public areas)
  • country estates
  • leisure, theme and caravan parks
  • business, retail and industrial parks, factory grounds
  • cemeteries
  • National Trust sites
  • golf clubs and courses
  • housing developers
  • landscape gardeners and garden designers
  • garden centres, builders merchants and DIY shops that you'll supply on a wholesale basis

Turf buyers may want to be reassured that the turf you supply complies with the Turfgrass Growers Association's quality standards.

Special offers and discounts

You may decide to offer a discount as a matter of course to your trade customers. How much discount will depend on your pricing policy and how much local competition there is. You could offer further discounts for buying turf in large quantities, or you might offer free delivery for sizeable orders.

Decide what services to offer

There are a number of different services that you might decide to offer your customers, such as:

  • cash and carry on sales of pre-cut turf from your depot. Make sure you do not have too much turf cut which might go to waste if you have only a few customers
  • site visits to measure up and establish exactly the best solution for your customer's requirements
  • delivery to customers' sites (you might not charge for this if it's a big order)
  • installation (laying of turf) at the customer's site. This might include aftercare such as watering, mowing and repair work
  • full ground preparation at the customer's site, including stripping existing turf, digging or rotovating the soil, fertilising and raking. Sometimes you might be responsible for ordering topsoil, landscaping and installing irrigation and drainage systems
  • hire of turf-stripping machinery to customers who want to prepare the site themselves

Some of these services you might provide in-house, while others you could sub-contract to another firm. For example you might find it more cost effective to use a specialist haulage firm for longer deliveries than to maintain a fleet of vehicles (and drivers) yourself.

Advertising your turf business

Whatever the services you decide to offer, it's very important to make sure that your potential customers know about you. There are a number of things you can do to promote your business such as:

  • take a stand at local shows
  • advertise in your local newspaper and any local directories
  • set up your own website, explaining the different types of turf available. This could include a calculator so that people can work out how much turf they'll need
  • have leaflets printed to distribute to local businesses, such as housing and commercial developers, builders merchants and garden centres and your local council. You could also send some to any local gardening clubs
  • become a member of the Turfgrass Growers Association (TGA) and benefit from a listing in the online TGA 'Find a Grower' directory
  • use social media like Facebook and Twitter to keep people up to date with your business, including the availability of your turf products and any special offers and promotions
  • contact garden services businesses, landscapers, designers, architects and so on to let them know about your services
  • pay for an advert on Yell.com and other similar online or print directories

Turf production

Turf production on a commercial scale is typically a labour intensive and costly business. According to industry sources, a turf farm needs to be at least 400-500 acres (160-200 hectares) if the cost of machinery is to be covered. It is also very important that you have enough land to be able to grow a succession of turf crops so that you can always fulfil orders. You might decide to rent additional land, on which you grow fast maturing general contract turf and grow slower, specialist turf on your own land. Some turf suppliers operate from several different sites so that they can offer customers turf grown on different soils. This can help the turf to become established quickly once it has been laid.

Land suitable for turf-growing must be well-drained, level and stone-free and easy for your lorries or tractors to access. You may need to consider irrigation systems during the summer months. The soil itself must be suitable and not contain too much clay.

The soil must be carefully prepared before seeding - for example, getting rid of as many stones as possible. Once you have planted the seeds they are likely to germinate between one and two weeks later. You will have to apply fertilisers to encourage growth (and good, green colour) and herbicides and pesticides to keep weeds and pests to a minimum. The crop should be inspected regularly.

Once the turf is established it will need to be mown to keep it short and to train it to grow upright. In the summer months you may need to do this twice a week. You will also need to vacuum it regularly, to pick up clippings, leaves and other debris.

After 14 to 18 months or so the turf will be strong enough to be harvested. If your land is well-drained you will probably be able to harvest all year round, except for times when there is snow on the ground.

Turf has a short 'shelf life' and can dry out very quickly in hot weather. Many turf growers try to harvest in the early morning when it is cooler and aim to deliver to customers within 24 hours of harvest or less. (If it's not kept properly it will deteriorate significantly within 36 hours - meaning it's unlikely to thrive once it's been laid.) You should give some thought to how you will keep turves cool and moist if you plan to deliver to customers who are not located nearby.

Turf is most commonly supplied in rolls of one square metre or one square yard. Some suppliers also cut 'jumbo' rolls which measure 15 to 25 square metres or yards.

When you are estimating how much turf your land will produce you should remember that you will have a certain amount of wastage and that some turves will not be of an acceptable quality. You might only obtain saleable turf from 85% to 90% of the total available planted area.

You are likely to need several pieces of machinery such as a turf-seeder, vacuum, top-dresser, mowers and harvesting machinery. Fork-lifts are used in the field to load pallets onto delivery vehicles. You can find out more about machinery for turf care from suppliers such as BLEC Global Ltd.

Types of turf

There are several different types of turf grown by turf suppliers, each of which is suitable for use in a particular situation. For example:

  • standard domestic general contract
  • fine and medium fine for sports such as bowls, tennis, cricket and fairways
  • specialist heavy duty for sports such as football or rugby - or for equestrian activities

Turf seed mixtures are specially blended from a mixture of different grass seeds according to the use that the turf will have. For example the mix may be blended to tolerate shade, drought, very heavy usage, excessive moisture, different soil types, adverse weather conditions and so on.

Grass seed is produced by specialist farms, many of which are licensed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Scottish Government Rural Affairs and Environment Department and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) in Northern Ireland to clean their seeds to get rid of weeds that might contaminate the crop. Cleaned seed must be sampled by a licensed sampler and must be tested by a licensed laboratory before it can be sold.

Good quality turf seed suppliers comply with the quality standards laid down by the Turfgrass Growers Association (TGA) which specifies that cultivars of turfgrass for turf production should be included in the current edition of Turfgrass Seed, produced by the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB), supported by the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI).

You can find out more about seed mixtures from specialist turfgrass seed suppliers such as Germinal Seeds or Barenbrug UK. You can use the interactive specifier's tool on the Germinal Amenity website to select their most appropriate grass seed for a particular use.

Pricing policy

Getting the price right is very important. You must make sure that the price you charge for your turf is enough to cover all of your operating costs, including your own drawings. Bear in mind that you will have both fixed and variable costs. Fixed costs are those that you will incur no matter how many turf crops you produce - for example land rents, machinery purchase and irrigation costs. Variable costs are incurred each time you cultivate a turfgrass crop and include:

  • seed
  • fertiliser
  • herbicides and fungicides
  • the cost of casual labour - for example, for seeding and harvesting
  • delivery charges

The price you charge for your turfgrass will vary significantly, depending on its quality and the use to which it will be put. For example, you might charge four or five times as much per square metre/yard for specialist turf than for the lowest quality pasture turf. But your seed prices will also be much higher for top quality turf and it may also grow much more slowly than general contract turf. Your seed costs will also be affected by the sowing rate for each crop - that is the amount of seed that is used during seeding. For example, a general landscaping turf might have a sowing rate of between 25 and 35 grams per square metre.

Buy an existing business

You might decide to buy an existing turf supplying business rather than start your own venture from scratch. Buying a going concern can mean that the products, customers, regular sales, staff, premises and equipment are already in place. Make sure to consider the condition and value of any growing turf that's included in the sale.

But buying a business can be a hazardous, expensive process unless you have the right skills and experience on your team, including legal and financial know-how. Establish the genuine trading and financial position, so that the price you pay for the business is not too high.

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