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John Reitman

By John Reitman

High school program helps prep future turf managers

Wendy Schepman is right where she is supposed to be. A teacher in the Career Technical Education center at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida, Schepman runs the school's turfgrass program.

050924 south fork 2.jpgFounded in 1989 by Keith Krueger, the program has sent dozens of graduates into the local turf market in jobs at golf courses, sports turf and lawn and landscape.

The South Fork program includes both coursework and real world experience on the school's three-hole golf course. Students get the opportunity to conduct almost all tasks they would while working on a golf course, such as mowing, spreading topdressing and seed, bunker maintenance and servicing mechanized equipment. There also is a fruit grove to manage, and those who are 18 can train to get their pesticide applicator license.

Schepman (right), a 2003 South Fork graduate, recognized early on that the program is unique and serves a critical role in training the next generation of professionals in the South Florida turf industry. After Krueger retired, she returned to her alma mater in 2022 after furthering her turf career first at Indian River State College and then the University of Florida and spending several years working for the St. Lucie Mets, the Class A Florida Complex League affiliate of the New York Mets based at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie.

"I always wanted to be an ag teacher," Schepman said. "I worried that the program might go away if it didn't get another good teacher, so I aligned myself to take over the program."

The demand for turfgrass professionals in South Florida is great. There are as many as a dozen golf courses nearby that either are under construction or on the drawing board. Not to mention, the area is flush with professionally managed real estate developments and nearby Palm Beach County has more golf courses than any other U.S. county.

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The curriculum in the turf program at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida, includes maintaining machinery used on the school's three-hole golf course. Photo courtesy of Wendy Schepman

Today, graduates of South Fork's turf program can be found on such golf courses at Seminole, Jupiter Island Club, Medalist Golf Club and Michael Jordan's Grove 23 among many others.

Rob Uzar, superintendent at Hammock Creek Golf Club in Palm City, is another product of the South Fork program. Like Schepman, he too attended Indian River State College.

He knew at an early age that he wanted to be a golf course superintendent. In fact, he jokes that he was pushed in that direction early on because Kreuger, the program's founder, and Ray McDonald, a since-retired golf course superintendent in the Stuart area, coached him in youth soccer from age 5 until he was 13 or 14 years old.

"The program laid the groundwork for what it takes to work in this industry," Uzar said. 

"You get to operate a mower at age 14 and you cut turf at one-tenth of an inch and not mess it up. It's really like on-the-job training."

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Students in the turf program at South Fork High School in Stuart, Florida, get the chance to conduct just about every task they would encounter on a golf course. Photo courtesy of Wendy Schepman

The curriculum at South Fork also includes field trips. That list of destinations includes places like Hector Turf, a Deerfield Beach Toro distributor; the GCSAA show when it comes to Orlando; one of several local golf courses; a hydroponic farm charged with helping feed the homeless; and Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, the spring training home of the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals as well as each team's FCL affiliate.

"I am the field trip queen," Schepman said. "Our students get a lot of jobs out of those field trips."

The program sends a handful of graduates into the local work force and sometimes formal turf school at a two- or four-year institution. Uzar regularly employs South Fork students at Hammock Creek, which is only about 8 miles from the golf course.

Uzar is also a member of the South Fork turf program's advisory board, a group of about six to eight turf professionals who help Schepman and the school steer the program.

Next for the program is a new irrigation system for the 419 Bermudagrass on the three-hole golf course.

That project began pre-Covid, was stalled by the pandemic and never completed. Schepman and the board currently are involved in navigating the complicated funding process dictated by Florida's public school system.

"It's not like a gym where you build it once and you're finished other than basic maintenance," Uzar said. "A lot goes into this to keep it going. We're excited about getting it back to where it needs to be."

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