Farm Progress

Once it’s established, you don’t water it, you don’t fertilize it, and you don’t mow it.

Gail C. Keck, freelance writer

January 23, 2017

6 Min Read
SPECIAL RECOGNITION: Turpin Farms has developed the first turf in the U.S. recognized by the United States Green Building Council for providing LEED credits for development projects. Pictured are family members Christine Fischer and her father, R. Turpin Fischer, with Pam Simmons and her son, JacobGail C. Keck

Turpin Farms has a long, rich history of farming. While family members are proud to look back, they have survived and thrived by looking forward. The family has developed a line of environmentally-friendly turf on their historic family farm near Cincinnati.

“Once it’s established, you don’t water it, you don’t fertilize it, and you don’t mow it,” says Pam Simmons, who runs the family farm with her brother, R. Turpin Fischer.

They developed the low-impact turf and grass seed mixes in response to a growing demand from developers and homeowners, Turpin says. “That’s exploding quite rapidly.”

Pam and Turpin are 10th-generation descendants of Phillip Turpin, who settled on the land on Feb. 9, 1785. The farm is at the southwestern edge of the Virginia Military District and was deeded to Phillip’s father, also named Phillip, as a Revolutionary War land grant, signed by President John Adams. Besides clearing and farming the land, the Turpin family built and ran several other businesses as the community grew, including a flour mill and two distilleries. As early settlers in the area, the Turpin family faced the danger of Indian attacks, so brick homes were built with small, cross-shaped slit windows on the ground floor so they could fend off unfriendly intruders. Several of those homes are still occupied today. Now, however, the area is far from wilderness. The farm is nearly surrounded by urban development and is only 9 miles from Cincinnati’s Fountain Square. 

Freedom from commodity markets
Through the years, family members have raised grain crops, but in the 1960s, Turpin and Pam’s father decided he wanted a crop that wouldn’t leave him at the mercy of commodity markets. He added turf to the crop rotation, and today the farm produces turf on about 500 acres each year, supplying sod for area golf courses, stadiums and parks, as well as residential lawns. While turf is the primary crop, soybeans remain in the crop rotation. Some of their land is too rocky for turf production, and they also like to rotate away from turf to manage insect cycles and soil fertility, Turpin says. For instance, soybeans fix nitrogen in the soil, benefitting the following turf crop. “Mother nature really dictates our rotations,” he explains.

A willingness to adapt has helped the family continue farming despite changes in its surroundings and in market conditions. For instance, Pam managed a greenhouse operation on the farm for 23 years, producing ornamental plants and herbs. At one time, she recalls, they were selling a couple thousand garden mums each fall. But they phased out the greenhouse business when profitability declined. They were facing competition from Lowe’s and Home Depo, and the economic downturn in 2008 reduced demand for greenhouse plants.

The family also ran a popular corn maze in the fall for several years, attracting as many as 7,000 people a night. “It became overwhelming,” Turpin says. It wasn’t the additional work so much as dealing with so many people, he explains. To staff the maze, they needed to hire 100 employees, and although most customers were fine, a small percentage were troublemakers. A drought year with a poor corn crop helped them decide to eliminate the maze in 2010. “I felt like a weight was lifted,” Turpin recalls.

LEEDing toward the future
As they look toward the future, Turpin and Pam are focusing on the growing demand for environmentally-friendly landscaping. After phasing out the greenhouse business, Pam became a LEED AP (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional). With that accreditation, she is designing and installing sustainable landscaping, using turf, seed and other products developed at Turpin Farms. Most of the landscaping projects have been in the Cincinnati area, but her expertise has attracted business from other parts of the country as well.

Pam and Turpin saw the potential in sustainable turf and grass seed after a landscaper called looking for a grass seed mix for a LEED certified home. They developed the first turf in the U.S. recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for providing LEED credits for development projects. “We’re ahead of the seed companies,” Turpin notes.

As a LEED AP, Pam understood the program requirements. Conventional turf can leave a big carbon footprint because of the fertilization, pesticide use, watering and mowing used to keep it attractive, she explains. Their goal was to develop turf and seed mixes that would reduce the need for those inputs, while still offering durability and an attractive appearance. 

To develop their 1785 Low Impact Turf, Pam and Turpin evaluated seed from various native and adaptive grass species. They tested the grasses on the farm to evaluate drought tolerance, tillering ability, color, insect resistance and growing height without mowing, Turpin explains. Their Huntington silt loam soil drains quickly, so they can withhold irrigation to see how grasses withstand dry weather. Each of the seed mixes they’ve developed includes several grass species to improve the turf’s resilience, Turpin explains. To meet USGBC requirements, they also needed third-party verification of the performance of their seed mixes, so they worked with Ohio State University, the University of California and Cornell University to verify their product performance.

The development of more environmentally-friendly turf products is consistent with Turpin Farms’ overall commitment to conservation. The farm has eliminated the use of insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids, to prevent damage to honeybees and other wildlife, explains Turpin. They’ve also worked with Clermont County and the EPA on a rainwater retention project to improve water quality in East Fork Lake.

Defending land rights
While environmentally-friendly turf products are helping Turpin Farms remain profitable, Pam and Turpin are concerned about other pressures that could force them off the farm. “We’re touchy about land rights,” says Pam, “and water rights.” In particular, they’ve been monitoring land rights issues that have developed in Western states between ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management. While the Bureau of Land Management does not have as much interaction with farmers in Ohio, farm owners here need to be ready to defend their right to own and manage their land and water, Turpin stresses. With family ties that extend to the Founding Fathers (Thomas Jefferson is a cousin) the family values the rights spelled out in the Constitution, Turpin adds. “We’re for what is right, just and constitutional.”

Farming within an urban area creates some concerns as well. Trespassing is an ongoing problem, says Turpin. “People think any large piece of property must be public. Any large piece of property must be a park.” 

Turpin adds that the local park district is eager to buy the farmland if the family is ever ready to sell. They aren’t, but Pam and Turpin aren’t sure whether any of their children will eventually carry on the farm, although all of them helped with the farm work growing up. Two of Turpin’s adult children are already established in careers away from the farm and his youngest, Christine, is studying to become a surgeon. Pam’s son, Jacob, will be leaving later this year for a stint in the Navy.

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