August 2, 20176:00 AM ET
“I mean, look at this. Just look at this,” said Scott Geiger, an account manager for DeLea & Sons Sod Farm. “Can't you envision yourself throwing a football right here? Or setting up a lawn chair and just sitting? It doesn’t get any better than this,” he beamed. And he was right. On a recent Friday afternoon, it was as if the world had momentarily become a Rothko painting, nothing but blue sky levitating over emerald grass for as far as the eye could see. The pixie cut of the agricultural world, sod doesn't sway like barley or grow tall like corn, yet the experience of standing amidst 500 acres of something so overwhelmingly mundane can can feel moving, if not inspiring.
It’s a feeling that was likely lost among those who emerged from Manhattan’s M35 bus onto Randall’s Island on July 28 for Panorama Festival. The 100,000-person crowd, after all, was there for Frank Ocean and Solange, Tame Impala and Nine Inch Nails. Not the sod, which is easy to overlook if you’ve never been to festivals outside of New York where unkempt fields can become either mud pit or dust bowl, depending on the weather. But the 160,000 square feet of Kentucky bluegrass that was rolled out beneath their feet on Randall’s Island, as it turns out, was one-and-a-half years in the making.
The process began 80 miles away on Long Island’s North Fork, where DeLea collectively owns 5,000 acres of land. After sourcing seeds from the Pacific Northwest, the DeLea team takes what Geiger called a “Colonel Sanders, 11 herbs and spices approach” to the planting process, mixing a variety of seeds that set them apart from competitors. Among the seven different flavors the farm offers, Kentucky bluegrass, which is dark and dense and has become even darker and denser through genetic modification, is most popular. A single acre requires 250 pounds of seed.
Like bamboo, bluegrass develops a rhizome, a highly interconnected root system that grows perpendicular to the ground and makes it more durable. “What people don’t realize is that there is something like two million miles worth of microscopic roots beneath these pieces,” Geiger explained, unfurling a fresh four-foot long piece that had been cut by a machine and rolled up like a loaf of babka. “Try to pull this thing apart,” he nodded, “I dare you. You won’t be able to.”
Though Geiger compared the bluegrass to a welcome mat, the individual pieces were dense like lead vests, and thick like memory foam. Each blade was perfectly identical and the time it took to achieve that perfection, Geiger said, is what people pay for: “The seeds alone take three weeks to germinate and that’s something homeowners don’t have the patience for. And then it’s another year-and-half to get the roots this strong. We can’t speed up mother nature.”
But the farm also raises the kind of questions that arise when anything exudes perfection: what is the downside? At whose expense has this perfect thing been harvested? How would the human condition change without it?
Sod is, at its core, little more than a luxury item, and has been for hundreds of years. When grass lawns emerged in 17th century England, for example, they were shorn either by grazing livestock, which required extra farmhands, or by scythe-wielding servants. Both methods implied that property owners could afford the extra expenses inherent with having a lawn, that they had money to spare. Sod farms in the northeast are, more or less, an extension of this tradition. When Louis DeLea, then a milk delivery man in 1928, began digging up squares of pastureland in upstate New York by hand, his primary source of income came from those who could afford to pay for grave blankets in Queens cemeteries.
Today, it’s the same operation, but on steroids. At peak season, DeLea ships 500 acres worth of sod in a day, mostly to golf courses and wealthy homeowners in Greenwich, Connecticut and the metropolitan area. “Other parts of the country they don’t care so much. But around here, if you don’t have a nice lawn, you get the stink-eye from your neighbor,” Geiger said. “When a home gets rebuilt or remodeled, which happens often, we go in an re-sod the entire property. There are massive properties in the Hamptons that we have re-sodded four times in the past eight years. Randall’s has that big giant area where the festivals happens and they want it to look nice. Thank god for that.”
It’s precisely this demand, though, that has sod farms stripping the fields over and over again, at a pace so relentless one questions how long the earth can sustain it. Two days after the farm visit, the field Geiger stood in would be nothing more than compounded dirt, an oasis stripped of its life, only to be replanted the next week.There would be no time for rotating in a crop of soy or corn or potatoes that could help with weed control measures that are instead left to pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers. And while Geiger didn’t let on even a momentary pang of sadness about the waste, there was something sad about it. “I don’t want to say it’s a commodity, but it has its purpose,” he said.
Frank Rossi, an associate professor and turf grass specialist at Cornell University who has dedicated 35 years to studying grass, has discovered a lot of good in the process. “What you have to understand about sod is that you remove so little of the soil each time you harvest it,” he said by phone. “Much of the energy the plant put into its growth stays in the soil, which then as studies have shown, actually builds the soil. So if you have a lousy soil underneath the sod farm, grass, being a pioneer species, is generally in the business of building soil.”
He, like Geiger, weren't at Randall’s Island this past weekend -- but they both share a hope that one of the thousands who were took a moment to look down and appreciate the exceptionally green earth that was beneath them.