Lifestyle

9 reasons to choose turfgrass as a college major — and as a career

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Do you enjoy working outdoors, creating beautiful surroundings, analyzing environmental plant relationships, or growing high-value crops? A yes to any of these means a career in turfgrass management might be for you.

Turfgrass serves valuable functional (erosion), recreational (sports), and ornamental (beautification) purposes in our landscapes. And it is a greening industry. Managed turf covers 3 percent of arable U.S. land — primarily in urban and suburban areas.

Here are nine reasons a degree path — and a career path — may be a good fit:

1. It’s a Growth Industry

Puns aside, the consumer demand for green activities is ever-increasing. Turfgrass is part of a larger green industry that contributes to the physical and mental health of Americans, especially to those in crowded urban and suburban areas. Americans are spending more than ever on lawn care and are more frequently outsourcing its care. They are also getting outside more. To offset their sedentary screen time, Americans are also watching and participating in more outdoor sports than ever before.

nc state turfgrass

2. Hiring Demand

The consumer demand for green space equates to green jobs. There are 50 million acres of managed turf in the U.S. making it the third-largest crop in the nation. North Carolina alone grows over 2 million acres of turf making it the largest ornamental crop in the state. All of that turf needs management. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 11 percent growth in the category (50 percent faster than average). “There is more hiring demand than we have graduates,” said David Crouse, director of undergraduate programs for NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “In the past few years, our turfgrass graduates have been in the catbird seat. They get their pick of where they want to live and work. … One student last year had 30 job offers before he even graduated.” While job demand fluctuates geographically depending on economic conditions, the industry has shown a steady demand curve.

3. Income Potential

As if the outdoor backdrop wasn’t enough, the salary potential in the industry is also green. While starting salaries vary, an assistant superintendent may start around $46,000 and advance to a position of golf course superintendent averaging $93,000 to $109,000 nationally (depending on qualifications). Industry trade magazine Lawn & Landscape reports, “Those superintendents who have a relevant degree can command higher salaries than those who have only a high school education.” Landscape sales and management report average salaries between $45,000 and $60,000 per year. And plant breeders and seed producers typically earn between $56,000 and $73,000 annually.

4. Applying Your Scientific Interests

“Students are surprised at how much precision math and equipment calibration is necessary to produce high-quality turf. We are perfecting a product, not mowing grass,” said Rich Cooper, NC State professor of crop science. “Turfgrass is unique — unlike traditional crops which fertilize to maximize growth and yield — turf is a permanent installation. There’s no crop rotation so managers have to rely on plant resistance and cultivar selection even more than in traditional row crops,” said Charles Peacock, NC State turfgrass professor. “I tell students — you have to love more than mowing — turf management requires much more than that!” STEM-oriented students may be surprised to find turfgrass is a prime outlet for their scientific inquiry.

5. For the Love of Sports

Many students find their way into turfgrass science by way of summer golf course jobs or athletic interests. “It’s a way to stay connected to your game even if you aren’t a top tier player. You don’t have to be a good golfer, but it certainly helps to love the landscape,” Cooper said. “And be curious. A good turf manager is a detective, constantly observing for changes and figuring out what drives them.” The love of sport applies to athletes of all types — baseball, football, soccer, and golf. It’s no secret that many golf course superintendents enjoy the perks of playing the back nine as on-the-job research.

nc state turfgrass

6. Collaborating with Teams and Athletes

Turfgrass managers are a critical part of an athletic team. “Our Turf Cultural Systems class (CS 400) teaches future turf managers on how to manage sod and support their athletes. Soft, uneven, or poorly managed fields can cause athlete strain and injury,” Cooper said. And 90 percent of NFL athletes prefer natural turf surfaces for safety. Turf managers must be leaders, prepared to manage a facility and crew but also to communicate with teams and coaches. They play an integral role in their team’s training and ultimate success.

7. An Office With a View

It’s obvious that golf courses and athletic venues usually occupy some of the most beautiful places on earth. So if enjoying the outdoors is a factor in your career decision-making, this is an easy one. But the beauty of location comes with challenges. “Turf is a perennial plant so it has to be maintained from year to year,” noted Fred Yelverton, extension specialist in turfgrass weeds. “NC has a diversified climate — from snow to palm trees — so the turf varies. Students have to learn to manage warm and cool-season grasses differently.” Understanding micro-environments and regional conditions necessitate a firm foundation in a variety of environmental disciplines including soil science, plant pathology, and fertility management.

8. Environmental Impact

Turf not only beautifies our space but provides environmental protection through evaporative cooling, carbon processing, erosion protection, and water quality. But it poses environmental challenges too. “A lot of turf is recreational — people and pets play on it. So it has to be safe. Understanding and preventing [skin] exposure to irritants is something we teach our students,” Yelverton said. “From environmental runoff to fertility and pesticide fate, students have to be able to deal with all of that. Organic chemistry is a foundational part of what we do.”

9. Liking the Boss

Turfgrass management is ripe with opportunities for entrepreneurship. The number of private landscape companies continues to grow. “There are so many opportunities for specialization,” Rick Brandenburg, entomology and plant pathology extension leader, said. “For example, there’s an entire business opening up for pollinator-friendly yard management. Who would have thought that 15 years ago? There’s so much room for growth.” Statistics bear this out. Over ⅔ of landscape contractors own businesses that work in residential settings. Eighty percent of these businesses project moderate to high demand for their businesses in the coming year.

What Careers are Available in Turfgrass?

Your career path can vary depending on your personality, interest specialty, and preferred work environment. A background in turfgrass science can lead to careers working in the field, an office, or a lab. Like working hands-on outdoors? Golf and athletic clubs hire turf specialists to design and manage their landscapes. Prefer working with customers? Seed and equipment sales could be the route for you. Fascinated by science? Manufacturers and universities employ scientists to improve and test new turf varieties and products.

In the Field

  • Golf Course Superintendent
  • Irrigation Specialist
  • Landscape designer/contractor
  • Residential lawn care service
  • Park/Commercial Grounds Manager
  • Athletic Field Manager

Business

  • Seed & Nutrient Supplier
  • Turf Equipment Manufacturer/Sales
  • Business Owner/Manager
  • Sales Representative
  • Sod Grower

Lab/Industry

  • Plant/Seed Breeder
  • Weed Scientist
  • Extension Agent

Turfgrass Is More Than Mowing

Whether you love the roar of the mower or cringe at the crank, turfgrass science goes beyond grass cutting. It’s an in-demand interdisciplinary career path with branches from bioscience to entrepreneurship.

Don’t be fooled by the fun of sports or by lush landscapes, turfgrass science involves more hard science than you think. Turfgrass science represents a range of academic disciplines including soil science, weed control, plant breeding, fertility management, plant pathology, and precision agriculture.

Why Do You Need A Turfgrass Degree?

The answer becomes apparent when you think beyond the mower. Turf is a specialty field of study that straddles horticulture and agriculture. Maintaining and managing turf in high-use applications like sports, athletics, and recreation requires a different level of skill and attention than a backyard mow.

There is also an entire industry supporting turf management that requires researchers, scientists, breeders, and analysts who have higher education — often master’s level or beyond. “Employers are looking for more educated employees today. People with a four-year degree are hands-down better off — both in being hired and also being promoted within a company,” said Travis Gannon, NC State researcher in herbicide and pesticide fate. “A turfgrass degree provides individuals with more technical expertise and preparation for critical thinking and problem-solving.”

Why Study Turfgrass at NC State?

Renowned Faculty

We offer students the opportunity to work and learn with national and internationally known faculty. Our 1,500 acre Lake Wheeler Road Research lab houses our turfgrass research lab. It is heralded for advances in turf genetics and named cultivar releases. The annual NC State Turfgrass Field Day attracts over 800 attendees for expertise, tours, and workshops from faculty and staff our students interact with daily.

nc state turfgrass

“Our program is successful because we have great students and specialized faculty,” Fred Yelverton said. “The size of our program allows us more expertise in a variety of turf topics that we can share with our students.”

Susana Milla-Lewis is another example of NC State’s specialized expertise. Milla-Lewis is the leader of the university’s turfgrass breeding research program. Her lab and students have worked to build a research pipeline lab and field testing over 15,000 turf strains over the last 10 years. Our turf students enjoy the opportunity to learn from her experience in CS 211 Plant Genetics course and as a potential adjunct in lab internships.

NC State’s Grady Miller is the director of the Center for Turfgrass Environmental Research & Education, a joint effort between NC State and NC A&T University. Formed in 2001 by the turfgrass industry, the center funds turf research projects across multiple disciplines on topics from geese control to environmental gas volatility. Funded research is presented in an annual symposium and summaries are posted to TurfFiles, the NC State turf extension portal.

Hands-On Experiences

NC State also proudly houses a campus-affiliated Lonnie Poole Golf Course which hosts events, offers training, and internship opportunities. Both locations are regular outings for turf class field trips. “One of our class exercises is to evaluate the zoysia cultivar trials at Lake Wheeler. Students rate plots over several weeks to determine which varieties are performing best. Then we compare the students’ assessments with our expert extension specialists and see how they stack up,” Cooper shared.

Students interested in lab or field research have a welcome home at NC State. Our researchers specialize in turf genetics, agricultural chemical fate, environmental quality, weed and soil science, and spatial analytics. Lab internships are often available to undergraduates and field internships are a degree requirement.

nc state turfgrass

Networking

Our turfgrass students operate an active student group hosting industry speakers, attending industry conferences, participating in a turf quiz bowl and other events to extend learning and professional networking opportunities. The club also assists in hosting the annual Art Bruneau Golf Tournament benefiting NC State turfgrass student scholarships.

Our turfgrass faculty and staff are part of a vast network of industry-oriented alumni who are always looking to give back. This engaged alumni community supports our campus events with guests and offers internship and networking opportunities that frequently translate to jobs. Our students come from a range of backgrounds but go on to work with municipal and major league sports venues including the Washington Nationals, Denver Broncos, and many elite golf courses including St. Andrews and Pebble Beach.

North Carolina has a significant turf industry presence including equipment distributors, agricultural chemical companies and distributors, sod producers, not to mention many golf and athletic facilities in the Triangle, Charlotte, and Sandhills. “The impact of this concentrated pool of employers is not to be overlooked,” Travis Gannon noted.

Location

When it comes to turf, everything comes down to location. North Carolina is uniquely situated in a climate transition zone. With a range of USDA hardiness zones and three geographic regions in the state, NC State’s turfgrass program offers training and study on both cool and warm-season grasses. This prepares students to work in cooler northern climates or those warmer climates to the south. Because of their location, most universities can only offer one turf type of experience.

Interested in Learning More?

NC State offers an annual Turfgrass Academy each spring, where students and chaperones meet faculty, learn about our programs, and get out on the green. If you are a student interested in turfgrass science (or know someone who is), learn about our multiple degree programs or sign up for an email exploration of our department’s undergraduate studies.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.