January 3, 2000 | By: Mark Eclov
LEXINGTON, KY.

The farm population may be shrinking, but urban development has created another big need for information offered by the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky.

"The turf industry is all around you," said A.J. Powell, Extension turf specialist in the UK College of Agriculture. "Almost every homeowner and apartment dweller in the Commonwealth are either caring for a lawn or paying someone else to maintain their landscape. Anyone who uses a sports field or golf course is also a part of the equation."

Kentuckians spent more than a half-billion dollars on turf management in 1999, which makes it nearly as large as the state's burley tobacco industry and equal to the combined income from the state's corn and wheat crops.

"It is a huge industry," noted Powell. "There are at least 1000 lawn companies and maybe 3000 single-person businesses that provide lawn maintenance. Hundreds of garden centers and hardware stores do a landslide business selling turf-care equipment, fertilizers, irrigation equipment and insect and disease-control materials."

The College of Agriculture's goal is to provide unbiased information on all aspects of turf-care production and maintenance through all it's traditional roles of teaching, research and Extension. Faculty and Extension specialists from three departments of the UK College of Agriculture work on turf management issues.

The number of students majoring in turf management is a testament to the change in the industry. Turf majors now comprise roughly three- fourths of the agronomy department's student base.

The other pool of students is much larger and they are located throughout the Commonwealth. Turf-care information is needed by homeowners and a growing list of commercial turf management operations.

"What we mainly do though is provide information to just about every Kentuckian. If it isn't provided directly, they obtain it through garden centers, from county Extension agents, and in a better quality of service from our commercial operators," said Powell.

Research is the bedrock of the all the teaching activities and there is activity in many areas. At any given time there are at least a 1000 turf test plots in various phases of installation and testing at the turf research facility located on the UK Spindletop research farm.

The plots are used to evaluate turf varieties for their resistance to insects, weeds and disease and their ability to survive in Kentucky's transitional climate. The test areas are regularly visited by turf management specialists from around the region and beyond.

In recent years there has been a special emphasis on identifying turf for golf courses and sports fields.

"When I came to Kentucky in 1975, there was one decent athletic field in the entire state," said Powell. "Today, I can send a coach to look at any of 100 excellent fields."

The lion's share of basic home lawn-care questions are filtered through the county Cooperative Extension service agents for agriculture or horticulture. Powell and his UK specialist counterparts provide periodic training for these agents.

Weed, insect and disease problems that defy initial diagnosis at the county level usually end up at the UK Plant Diagnostic Lab where experts like Paul Vincelli, UK Extension plant pathologist, can make a more complete analysis.

Vincelli also finds time to test new fungicides and look for disease-resistant turf varieties.

"One of our biggest turf problems right now is grey leaf spot," said Vincelli. "It's the Ebola virus of perennial rye grass. Entire golf courses have been destroyed by the disease."

UK research helped to identify that there actually was a fungus at work and not just heat-induced damage.

"Right now our only alternative is to spray fungicides to control the problem and our work is focused at identifying what products work best and on how to best apply them," said Vincelli.

Kentucky also has it's share of turf insect pests. It has created some challenging research opportunities for entomologists like Dan Potter, Extension ornamental and turf grass specialist in the UK College of Agriculture.

"White grubs are one of the leading problems and their damage shows up as dead spots on lawns in fall," said Potter. "The problem is compounded by various varmints such as skunks and racoons and moles who view the grubs as "land shrimps." They tear up lawns and golf courses in the process of finding one of their favorite meals."

The emphasis of Potter's research is to develop a sustainable and balanced system where the use of insecticides is the exception instead of the rule.

"A lot of our research effort is geared towards identifying and studying the natural enemies of some of the most damaging grubs," said Potter. "We are trying to find ways to effectively control turf insects with environmentally-friendly weapons such as biological controls."

"We have had a major impact on this state," said Powell. "We had a bad drought in the mid-1970s and the vast majority of commercially- managed lawns that could not be irrigated, did not survive."

That situation provided the UK College of Ag turf team with the opportunity to teach better, less-intensive-management techniques. The proof that this educational effort worked could be seen in the resilience of the lawns around Kentucky after the more intense drought of 1999.

"I can say with a great deal of certainty that our College's Extension teaching and research efforts are one of the top programs in the country," added Vincelli.

People seeking additional proof that they do have a stake in this state's agricultural industry need to stop by their local county Extension office for the latest information on better lawn management.

Contact: 

A.J. Powell 606-257-5606, Paul Vincelli 606-257-1961