Arkansas Turfgrass – The Turf Zone interviews Dr. Doug Karcher, Professor at University of Arkansas and ATA Education Chair
The Turf Zone: Welcome to Arkansas Turfgrass Association’s Turf Zone podcast. This episode features a Member Spotlight on Dr. Doug Karcher, Professor at University of Arkansas and ATA Education Chair. Welcome Dr. Karcher.
Doug Karcher: Thank you, I’m pleased to be with you today.
TTZ: Let’s go ahead and start at the beginning. Tell me a little bit about your background and how you ended up as a turfgrass professor.
DK: It’s a bit of a long story so here we go. I was probably on summer break sometime between my third and fourth grade year as a little kid and my parents laid down the law that “hey, you’re just not going to lay around all summer – you need to start working, do something.” I grew up in a little rural town in Ohio, Richwood. Not a lot of opportunity there. It was either helping the local farmers bale hay or straw OR start a lawn mowing business in our neighborhood, so I chose the latter. I became an employee of the turf management industry as an 11-year-old and I’ve been interested in turfgrass maintenance ever since. When I got to high school and developed a passion for golf, I decided that I would work at our local country club, which is Marion Country Club – not the famous Marion Country Club in Pennsylvania, but in Marion, Ohio – and I loved that job so much that I was convinced after working there for a month or two that I was destined to be the Golf Course Superintendent at Augusta National Golf Club, like many other kids that get excited about the industry. So upon high school graduation, I enrolled at Ohio State, majoring in Agronomy and turfgrass management, thinking that I’m going to be working on the golf course soon and make a career of that, and it wasn’t until I was about a month away from graduation and still hadn’t nailed down a job yet. My first interview was a very prestigious golf course, Cade’s Valley, for an assistant position that I really wasn’t qualified for with having very little management experience, but I didn’t realize that at the time. I was fortunate to get the interview, but didn’t get the offer, and I was a little bit down and talked with my advisor at Ohio State at the time, who was Carl Dannaberger, who is still there. He asked if I’d ever considered graduate school. I didn’t even know what graduate school was. He mentioned that there was an opportunity up at Michigan State and that I should really go and visit with Dr. Paul Rieke, that he had an assistantship available. I went on that visit and that really changed my career trajectory, in that I decided to go to graduate school and work on a Masters degree, fell in love with the science and the research side of the industry and just stayed up there for my Ph.D. and was fortunate that upon graduation at Michigan State in 1999, there was a job opening at the University of Arkansas. So I applied and got the offer and started working here at the University of Arkansas in the spring of 2000 and have loved it since.
TTZ: That’s great – you may have the longest running history from the early years. From elementary school until now! Do you have a lot of students who maybe have those same big dreams and goals in the turfgrass industry that you had, and if so, how do you advise those students on their career trajectory?
DK: Yes, we do. They usually haven’t been in the industry since their high school years. The incoming student dynamics changed a little bit in that a lot of the students we get now have transferred in from other majors because when they decided to go to college, they had no idea that turf management was a major. They haven’t worked on a golf course, but once they find out about it and get some experience working on a golf course, then yes, by all means, they’ve got big career goals in their sights and they’re very attainable. The advice that I give them and my colleague Dr. Mike Richardson gives them is just get out there, get experience, it doesn’t have to be some really fancy summer internship. Even during the school year, get some hours in at our local golf facilities, build your network, stay plugged into the industry and if you’re willing to put in some hard work for a few years post-graduation, really the sky’s the limit as far as career opportunities moving forward.
TTZ: Understanding the dynamic of maybe a sports turf manager or golf course superintendent, obviously the scientific or “hard skills” we might call them, that they’re learning in the classroom are important. But what maybe people would call “soft skills” such as communication and customer service and understanding expectations from management – those are skills that may not get addressed in a classroom as much, but are equally as important. Is there a place where you guys address that in the program?
DK: Yes, there are a couple of ways we address that. We try and stress that in our turf management courses and we usually have a communications component in our turf science classes to work on those skills. We also require that all of our students go through an internship and have an opportunity to visit with their supervisors in the internship about developing those skills. Then in addition to that, we offer what we call a Golf Course Operations class. But it’s really not just for golf, or anyone that’s interested in golf, sports turf students take that class as well. That’s a class where Dr. Richardson and I don’t provide the instruction, but we bring in industry professionals to talk about non-turf science issues that they will be dealing with when they advance in their career, like how to run an employee meeting or how to interact with your greens committee, hiring and firing practices where they have to start thinking about some of these communication skills, networking skills that can really make or break them as they advance in their careers.
TTZ: That’s a great way to lead into your partnership and the University of Arkansas’s partnership with the Arkansas Turfgrass Association. We know that the association focuses a lot on education and networking, and I know that at the university you host Field Days and events really meant to emphasize that for students and industry professionals. What is the most important part of that partnership for you at the university?
DK: For me personally, it allows me to stay plugged in with all components of our turf industry, just being able to interact with the ATA Board several times a year, and the Board has representation from folks in golf and in sod production, in commercial sales, in lawn and landscape industry. So it’s great for me to stay in touch with those folks and learn what their most pressing issues are that they’re dealing with, and it challenges me to try to provide content at the education session, at the annual ATA conference that will address some of those big issues that they’re dealing with. It’s very helpful for me, and through those interactions, I’m able to pass that information along to our students at the U of A, just to help us stay current and relevant in addressing the needs of the industry and make sure that we’re graduating students that are ready to succeed in the industry.
TTZ: Let’s get back to you now, away from the university and the association. What is the best part of your job?
DK: That’s a tough question – there are so many parts of my job that I really love. I love the folks I work with, I love interacting with the industry. But the first thing that popped into my mind is just being in a campus environment. I love working at the university. I guess my wife would say that it’s allowed me to not grow up – I still act like a college student sometimes and that may be true on occasion, but just being surrounded by all of the energy of the college and knowing that regardless of what topic that I’m trying to study, there’s very likely to be a true expert on that topic somewhere close-by on campus. So just to be working in that environment I find to be extremely stimulating, makes it fun to come to work every day.
TTZ: What are some unique challenges of that job – aside from continuing to act like a college student, of course?
DK: That aside. A lot of folks don’t know this – they think that my predominant job is just to teach students, but that’s actually a minor percentage of my job. I was primarily hired to do turf research, but I also teach. So the biggest challenge of doing turf research is just being subjected to Mother Nature. Most of our trials are out in the field and subjected to Mother Nature and we can have a trial that we put lots and lots of hours that we’re getting it set up and applying treatments and maybe have it just completely washed out to the point where we get no meaningful data for a season. A good example of that was last year – we were supposed to have a field day last year, but about a week and a half before field day, we had a thunderstorm with some major downburst winds that destroyed three of our big rainout shelters which we use to keep natural rainfall off of our drought trials. So three of those trials were severely compromised and so was our field day. Unfortunately we had to postpone our field day an entire year. We were able to finally have our field day last week, which was a great event. Dealing with the weather with our research is the biggest challenge of my job, and a second challenge currently, and this goes to the teaching portion of my job, is just getting the word out to prospective college students that we have a major here on campus that will prepare students for rewarding careers in either sports turf management or golf management or lawn care operations. When the industry contracted about ten years ago, our student numbers took a severe decline and haven’t fully recovered. We’re at the point now where there are lots of great internship and entry level job positions for graduates in our program and we just don’t have the bodies to fill them. So finding students and getting the word out about our major is probably the second biggest challenge of my job.
TTZ: Absolutely. I’m hearing that across the board from a lot of turfgrass associations – that labor force and even those with degrees are in short supply for the many jobs available.
DK: Definitely so, it is a nationwide problem, without a doubt.
TTZ: Do you have a mentor in the turfgrass industry?
DK: I have a few mentors and I think I’ve listed their names already. The first would be my undergraduate advisor, Karl Dannaberger, who’s still a turf scientist at Ohio State. He really piqued my interest in turfgrass management when I started taking his courses at Ohio State and he opened the possibility of turf research and graduate education to me. Then my second mentor would be Paul Rieke, who was my masters and Ph.D. advisor, as well as just a genuinely nice, positive human being, just a great person to work with and also a great scientist. I was trained very well at Michigan State under his leadership, which led to a position here at the University of Arkansas. When I started here I was pretty darn young to be a faculty member and I was fortunate that Mike Richardson had been at the University of Arkansas for a few years and had been in the turf industry for about, I think almost ten years at the time. He was just a great mentor as far as teaching me the ropes of how to be a faculty member at the university – where to focus my energy and what rabbit holes to avoid. It made my transition from graduate student to faculty member much easier being able to have Dr. Richardson just right next door and bounce ideas off of and helping make sure that I didn’t stray too far off the path that I should be on as an assistant professor.
TTZ: So I have to know – do you and Dr. Richardson have any golf rivalries, are you guys out on the course? Knowing your affinity for golf courses, is that a thing?
DK: That’s a great question. We may have back in the day, but unfortunately I haven’t been playing enough as I should. We used to go on “turf inspections” as we’d call them, back in the day, where we could take off work a little early or I shouldn’t say take off. You know, it’s part of the job to make sure we know what’s going on at the local golf courses, so we’d take off earlier in my career. Yeah, we did have a bit of a rivalry, but I rarely beat him. Neither one of us are going to ever be on the tour, but he was certainly a few strokes better than me and so I wasn’t able to develop that rivalry as well as I should, just because I wasn’t good enough to play at his level. So then what happened is I had kids, started a family, so my oldest is 12 and I also have a nine-year-old. Just finding the time to get away and play has been difficult. Now, my one in to getting back to playing regularly is that my nine-year-old seems to have taken an interest in golf. So if I can cultivate that, and make that a family outing, I’m going to find my way back onto the golf course and maybe I can forget some of my old bad habit and maybe be able to improve my game and get that rivalry going with Dr. Richardson again.
TTZ: That sounds like a noble mission. If you are not in fact busy being beaten by Dr. Richardson on the golf course, what else do you do in your free time?
DK: So in my free time what I’ve found, my free time away from work and family commitments, would be I’ve become a tennis enthusiast. I can play at night or early in the morning and I can get a good match in about 90 minutes, so that’s my outlet now. If I need to take frustrations out on something, I’m taking it out on a tennis ball instead of a golf ball. So that’s a major hobby of mine and then my other hobby would just be spending time with my family and being involved with my kids’ activities. It seems like there’s always a camp or an athletic event going on and I’m really enjoying that, especially as my kids are turning into young men, that’s really enjoyable hanging out with them.
TTZ: Let’s close with this one, and you may have already touched on this a little bit, but what would your advice be for people entering the turfgrass industry now?
DK: Don’t be afraid of a little hard work, be patient, build your network, treat people with respect, follow through – do what you say you’re going to do, show up to work on time and you will be successful, even if you’re not a four-point student. If you pass your classes and are a hard worker and you have a personality that you work well with others, you will be successful in this industry, no doubt.
TTZ: That’s great advice. Thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Karcher and for your leadership and contribution to Arkansas Turfgrass Association.READ THE ISSUE