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Sod of champions, grown here at home
SoVaNow.com / March 13, 2013From the hillsides of Mecklenburg to the fields of champions: since 1964, Jack Kidwell has been laying grass sod all over the East Coast. And for the past 33 years, he has based his operation out of Baskerville.
Kidwell, a 70 year old businessman and entrepreneur, started Kidwell Turf Farms and Duraturf in 1980 and since that time has reinvented the way that the turf industry operates. After 10 years of producing and marketing cool-season grasses (fescue and bluegrass blends), Kidwell, a.k.a. the Sod Father, introduced warm-season Bermuda grasses at the company’s Remington, Va. location.
Athletic field application became the primary target market for these grasses. In 1980 Virginia Tech released their proprietary Bermuda grass, Vamont, to be grown and produced at the Baskerville farm location. The innovation has helped to fuel the turf operation’s rise as a leading provider for the NFL, college football, professional soccer and other major sports leagues.
Kidwell’s story reads like that of many great American entrepreneurs, the kind who built from the ground up. Humble beginnings, a stomach for risk-taking, and a keep-it-in-the-family outlook lifted his business from installing a ball field in Crewe in 1970 to sodding for the Washington Redskins in 1972.
“We worked with the Redskins every year since 1972 until they moved to RFK Stadium,” said Cynthia Kidwell, Jack’s wife and business partner. “When the Washington Nationals came about and DC United [Washington’s pro soccer team] were alternating between playing at RFK Stadium, we did a change out every three years there, too.”
Today, Kidwell’s research and development farm on Route 4 in Baskerville, known as Kidwell Organics, specializes in propagating and producing proprietary warm season turfgrasses for athletic field venues. However, these warm season grasses are not limited to sporting applications; there are homeowners and commercial entities that sometimes prefer a Bermuda grass or zoysia grass over fescue because they are “more forgiving” of the stresses of summer heat, according to Kidwell. Golf course customers as well like to use zoysia grass for the surrounding collars on their courses.
Since the Kidwell Organics farm has less harvestable turfgrass acreage than a traditional sod farm operation, and is located a considerable distance from most of the DuraTurf field projects, often times “sod” for the project is selected from a farm closer to the job location. 95 percent of sod producers are members of the industry organization, Turfgrass Producers International (T.P.I.), and most adhere to the cultural standards in producing quality turfgrass products.
Duraturf started out as Richmond Turf in 1980. Kidwell’s daughter, Melissa Reynolds, President of DuraTurf Services, joined the company in 1987. She has since helped broker deals with major sports teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, to sod and care for their practice fields.
“We’re working with the Baltimore Ravens,” 2013 Super Bowl champions, said Reynolds. “This is the same work we did last February.”
DuraTurf does more than lay sod. They perform excavation, soil analysis, and base construction for synthetic fields. In 2008 DureTurf created Lancer Park in Farmville for Longwood College.
“It was one of the highest elevations in Prince Edward County,” remembered Reynolds. “English Construction performed the excavation and we built the multi-purpose field and the soccer field.
The multipurpose field was built to be an environmentally self-sustaining field, said Reynolds.
“We worked with Maxi Hines and got to stand at their drawing boards and show my dad’s ideas and they were accepted and bought,” said Reynolds. “This is a very green project, because the water from the natural grass upper field sinks through the field and is saved in reservoirs and pumped back onto the field during irrigation.”
The warm-season grasses grown at the Baskerville farm have successful thrived at hundreds of venues near and far: from Clarksville Dixie Youth ball field to a Saudi Arabia racetrack; to South Hill’s Parker Park to Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc.; at Longwood College, at RFK Stadium (35 consecutive years) and the Carolina Panthers stadium. The local turf has wound up at Miami Dolphins Stadium, at Baltimore Ravens practice fields, at the U.S. Naval Academy, and the customer list continues.
One of the higher profile projects DuraTurf undertook was in January of 1997, when Kidwell’s company earned considerable media attention with the company’s installation of sod on Green Bay’s legendary Lambeau Field.
Other key moments in the operation’s history have occurred out of the spotlight. One came the day Kidwell was walking around the Naval Academy in Annapolis and found a different breed of grass growing, which he brought home, cultivated and later patented.
“Jack usually walks with his head down,” joked Cynthia. And it pays off.
Another story involves Jack’s daughter, Melissa.
There are two varieties of zoysia grass grown at Kidwell Organics: Meyer and Melissa. Meyer has been around the U.S. for many years. But “Melissa” has an unknown origin. Kidwell’s daughter Melissa, while living in Norfolk, discovered this fine-blade zoysia grass growing through a crack in a concrete driveway at a friend’s home. She dug up a sample, put it in a sandwich bag and brought it to her father.
After three years of development in a controlled testing plot, Melissa zoysia grass was expanded from its incubation and now is sod-ready — grown in a two-and-a-half acre field and sold to customers from all over.
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