February 2017

SportsTurf provides current, practical and technical content on issues relevant to sports turf managers, including facilities managers. Most readers are athletic field managers from the professional level through parks and recreation, universities.

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Page 28 of 51 February 2017 | SportsTurf 29 Grether was a force in the industry; one of the five ASPA members that would later be honored for their "vision and unselfish dedication" in helping to organize the association. "Toby was a true visionary, eager to explore possibilities, and a mechanical genius," says Cockerham. "Nearly six years working with Toby was fascinating—and the whole Cal-Turf experience was an incredible opportunity for me." Steve Cockerham brought his own unique vision, expertise and genius to sod production and the turfgrass industry. His start in turf included a segment as Dr. James B Beard's "student labor" while Beard was working on his Ph.D. at Purdue. After Purdue, Cockerham worked in cooperative extension in Pennsylvania. He had moved on to a position in research and development for Ortho, in Fresno, CA, when Grether connected with him. Following Cal-Turf, Cockerham worked as a consultant, owned the sod farm, and then switched back to consulting. In 1983, he was hired by the University of California, Riverside. They were seeking someone who knew research and knew production to serve as superintendent for the Department of Agricultural Operations research station. That proved to be another industry- impacting match. All these segments of Steve Cockerham's career build together, expanding horizons along the way. CAL-TURF AND THE SOD INDUSTRY His Cal-Turf experience started with a road trip as he and his wife, Barbara, and their two-year-old son, left California in a company car, pulling a travel trailer, on a mission to hit the turfgrass research stations across the U.S. that had anything to do with turf. "We spent about nine weeks, meeting the "Who's Who" of researchers and many of their students, who later became researchers," Cockerham says. "The trip allowed me to build a nation-wide network of scientists who shared their expertise. And, by the time we returned, I had a pretty good grasp on how to start a company experiment station." One of his first research projects tackled the issue of excessive turfgrass clippings. An article he wrote in 1969, "The Cal-Turf Method of Clipping Utilization," gives an overview of how he and Grether collaborated to turn the negative of excessive clippings into an asset—a component in poultry food. Cockerham says, "If I could figure out what a process needed to accomplish, Toby could design a machine to do it. The results were unique harvesting equipment and an onsite clippings dehydration facility." As Grether began to expand Cal-Turf, Cockerham, whose role was now agronomist, was in the middle of the process. "We set up two sod farms from scratch, one in Irvine and one in Northern California," Cockerham says. "Toby shared his goals for each site and I learned enough to develop the procedures, design the irrigation systems and determine the equipment needed to make that happen later for my own operation." NETTING AND SOD A piece of mail, delivered to Cal-Turf by mistake, sparked the idea of combining netting and sod. It was an ad for DuPont Vexar netting promoting its use under mattress ticking to keep bed springs from puncturing the mattress. Cockerham knew most turfgrasses could be lifted and transplanted successfully before they were mature enough to be handled as sod. He says, "I wanted to find out if turf grown through netting could be harvested earlier. I shared my idea with Toby and he encouraged me to research it. I contacted DuPont and they sent material for the initial research. We harvested that first trial in four months. Toby, the manufacturing genius, built a machine to install the netting, cover it and seed—all in one operation." In 1975, Grether sold Cal-Turf to American Garden Products in an offer too good to refuse. The new ownership and Cockerham were not a good fit, and he left the company. He started consulting, but soon saw there was room for another sod company in the market. He needed some backers to help finance it. "I walked into a bank and told them what I wanted to do. They asked to see the pro forma profit and loss statement. And I said, 'Pro what?' So I had to learn the basics of business finance." The result was Rancho Verde Turf Farms. ASPA LEADERSHIP ROLES Cockerham had been involved with ASPA for several years before becoming a member so he knew most of the sod producers and researchers that were active in the association. John Hope of Manderley Turf Farms, who would be elected ASPA President for 1979-1980, had encouraged Cockerham to serve on the board. Though Cockerham defines his role as "the guy in the corner saying, 'Hey, wait a minute guys,'" ASPA's records report his leadership initiatives. Cockerham served as program chair of ASPA's 1981 Midwinter Conference and would be elected president for 1981-1982 that July. The sod industry was facing multiple challenges: water use issues, an energy shortage, a recession and the resulting depressed markets, a lack of agreement on sod quality, pricing all over the board—and the debate over natural grass versus "that other stuff" was heating up. While Cockerham had gotten Rancho Verde Turf Farms "off the ground and operating pretty well," the double whammy of the 1980 credit crunch and fuel shortages hit start-up businesses especially hard. "I couldn't get enough fuel to run my trucks," he says. "I had a letter of credit with the bank by then, but the interest rate was around 36 percent." Ben Warren, co-founder of Warren's Turf Nursery in Palos Park, IL, was a key leader in the formation of ASPA, and its first president. He had sold the company, which then decided to expand into southern California. Cockerham says, "Warren's bought my farm, making it a branch of Warren's Turf Nursery. I assisted the team during the transition, and then went back to consulting."

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