By Pat Jones: I have to admit that the idea of selling pre-packaged divot mix made me scratch my head at first. After years of carefully tracking what got bought and used at golf courses, it just was not on my radar.
But it was very much on the minds of superintendents and sports turf professionals, and Jeff Stahman knew it.
TurfMend was born in 2017 when Stahman helped a friend with a problem.
"Another superintendent called me and said, 'I can't get my divots to grow and I need your help.' I gave him my formulation that I'd developed over the past 15 years in the industry," Stahman said. "He called me back in a couple of days and said, 'This is amazing and maybe you should sell it.' I'd never thought about it before either. But that was the moment."
Stahman, an Idaho native, is an experienced turf pro who has managed or worked at a half-dozen facilities around the Northwest and even at a Ritz-Carlton course in the Cayman Islands for a while. But he had always been curious about the science side of the business, and he had earned his research chops while earning a degree at Kansas State. He even ran some turf trials in New Zealand during a study abroad tour back in the day.
Just a few years ago, Jeff was at a crossroads and was faced with a decision of whether to try and remain in the golf industry, or pivot into something else. He and his wife Amy moved to eastern Washington and he "gulped hard" and took a position with a city parks department. "It was tough to give up being a superintendent, but if I had been working at a golf course I never would have been able to build TurfMend in my spare time."
Now, after four years of building the business from scratch, Stahman and his wife Amy (who works for a manager of a landscape company) have reached the point where they have made a leap of faith: They quit their jobs, moved to Indiana and are now focused 100 percent on TurfMend.
I caught up with Jeff recently while he and Amy were on their way to Oregon's Willamette Valley to discuss future strategy – to learn more about TurfMend and why it is such a good fit for more superintendents and turf pros in today's changing industry.
PJ: Once you decided to commercialize TurfMend, what were the big challenges from the product-development side?
JS: When you make something out in the field you don't have to worry about packaging and shelf life and such. How hard could it be, right? So, we started out with a mixture and packaging I thought would work…and it didn't. We failed over and over and over again. You fail until you get it right.
The biggest issue was the packaging. The material didn't have enough holes to "breathe" or it had too many and would dry out. That problem alone probably should have bankrupted us but Barenbrug believed in us. James Schneider, their U.S. executive, said "If you're not failing, you're not learning." Boy did we learn a lot.
PJ: Tell me about the products.
JS: Our first product was a USGA-spec sand, peat moss and grass seed mix. It works exactly like it should but shipping it a long way can be expensive. So, product number two is an OMNI-listed compost, peat moss and grass seed. It's much lighter. That's been a game-changer for us.
PJ: How do the products differ in terms of performance?
JS: Very little, but some clubs prefer the sand-based product because they feel it's less dusty. We've had good feedback and performance-wise they both work. Some people say the compost holds moisture better and may germinate a little quicker. It's a personal preference.
We decided it was time to either commit 100 percent to this or simply give up on our dream. It was an easy decision really: we're not giving up, we're going all in.
PJ: This is kind of a niche product. What has helped you get the world out?
JS: We had two universities reach out and order out of the blue yesterday and they both found us through Twitter. Turf Twitter and social media have been really important for us. I admit I wasn't a fan of Twitter before, but Peter McCormick from TurfNet convinced me to do it. And he was right. He's been a tremendous resource for the company and for me personally.
PJ: So bottom line: If I am a pro turf manager who has always just mixed up my own stuff, why should I buy this instead?
JS: First, it's a consistent formulation. Second, we use Barenbrug, Jacklin and Tee-to-Green varieties so we have access to the best seed around. Finally, it's a massive time saver because you don't have to mix it. You cut open a bag and you're good to go.
Most often in golf, it's being used to fill divot bottles in the cart barn. The cart attendants just open a bag and refill the bottles. Even if you have a divot crew, there's no guesswork anymore. It's all done for you and it's going to be the right seed.
One obvious problem we see a lot with homemade mixes is contamination from the wrong seed getting used. Ours are clearly labeled so any member of the crew can pick a bentgrass mix for bent areas and a ryegrass mix for rye areas or whatever. It's ready to go and it's always going to be right.
PJ: Who else is using TurfMend besides golf course superintendents?
JS: Professional landscapers, property management companies, colleges/universities, school districts, municipalities, and sports fields managers. In addition, homeowners make up a large portion of our customers as well. They are using our smaller 8 pound bags to fix dog spots in their yards and fill bare spots.
PJ: How do landscapers use it?
JS: Lawn care operators often tear up a little turf with their tires, so they'll keep a bag of TurfMend in the trailer and throw some down. Any place they need a quick fix. Also repairs for dog spots is huge. We found the compost version fixes urine damage very quickly because it neutralizes the pH of the soil.
PJ: Ball field managers are also digging it.
JS: When I was in golf, I was hopelessly ignorant of sports field management and how complex it is. Baseball parks, soccer complexes, high school football stadiums. They are amazing with small crews and no budgets but they love TurfMend.
I've learned a lot from seeing how even a single-A head groundskeeper with a really modest budget finds value in TurfMend. For example, they can apply it anywhere, accurately, with a drop spreader because it's so dry, so they can put it around home plate, the mound or anyplace where there's wear and tear.
PJ: How important is it that you can provide a seed variety that matches what they have?
JS: It's very important, particularly with bent. Again, Barenbrug has been great about allowing us to work with their different varieties and their Yellowjacket seed coating really stands out. It's a great technology that helps with germination and prevents melting out and pythium during the summer, especially in the Midwest and east coast.
PJ: What is the usual response when people hear about TurfMend the first time?
JS: Obviously, some people still say they prefer to do it themselves. But more and more understand the value of having a consistent blend with their bentgrass. Or they just can't justify the labor cost of mixing it anymore.
PJ: You and Amy just quit your jobs and moved 2,000 miles to commit full-time to this business. What makes you confident enough in TurfMend to do that?
JS: We have seen exponential growth in 2021. Big-name customers are reaching out to us due to word of mouth and we are at the point where the company can no longer be managed as a side gig. We decided it was time to either commit 100 percent to this or simply give up on our dream. It was an easy decision really: we're not giving up, we're going all in.
PJ: How do you hope this will develop and what it will mean for superintendents and other turf pros?
JS: I also think supers are starting to realize the value of something they can throw in the cart barn, particularly when you consider the cost of labor and the desire for consistency. More of them are doing the math and figuring out we're more than worth it.
It's Twitter and word of mouth. There's a buzz and I feel like people a realizing we're onto something here. We're also getting some attention from good turf distributors who realize it's a smart thing to recommend to customers who are choosy about their bentgrass varieties.
PJ: So, final thoughts . . . why try TurfMend?
JS: We're made in America. We have great seed partners on our team. I'm a former golf course superintendent who's taking a leap of faith and starting a family-owned business. And we're genuinely passionate about the value of TurfMend. Give us a try."