The Turf Zone: Welcome to The Turf Zone. In this episode of Maryland Turfgrass, we’re talking to Logan Freeman, MTC Board Member and Golf Course Superintendent at Mountain Branch Golf Club in Joppa, Maryland. Logan, thanks for joining me. So let’s start at the beginning and get a little background on you. How did you decide to pursue a career in turfgrass management?
Logan Freeman: I just kind of stumbled into it in high school. Senior year of high school, my dad brought home an application for a local country club in Boise, Idaho where I used to live. And he’s like “Here’s an opportunity for a summer job,” and I thought okay, I’ll check it out. So I filled out the application and went down and did it. I ended up with a summer job where I started just a couple weeks after graduating high school, way back in ‘99 and I enjoyed it. All I did was rake bunkers the first year, pretty much, and do detail work. But it just kept in the back of my mind something that I was enjoying, even though I think I honestly tried to get out of it, like three or four different times in the first two or three years that I worked there. I ended up sticking it out and kept coming back and honestly, through college I was thinking I was going a different direction, I was going to get into emergency response, that was where I thought I was going to go. But lo and behold, twenty-some years later and I still haven’t left.
TTZ: So you never dabbled in other areas of turfgrass management – no sports fields or lawn and landscape?
LF: For about three months I helped a friend of mine start his lawn care business. I was his residential irrigation tech. I did that and at the club I had been at for several years before, the assistant superintendent position came open. I thought I would just go talk to the superintendent at the time about it to see – he had been my boss before when I’d left and just to ask him if he thought I was qualified for the position, if I’d be a good fit and he said “of course” and that’s how I ended up really getting back into it and at that point, I think I had finally decided it would be a career, potentially, a path that I was looking to follow. I was an assistant at that club for several years and then when I left there, I moved out to Maryland in 2010 and came out here and didn’t have a job. I followed some family at the time and came out and was able to stumble into the assistant position at Mountain Branch that came open. So I took that and then that position led me into, 5/6 months later, into the superintendent position when it came available. Lately I have started doing some side job stuff myself, I’d always done family’s, that sort of stuff, helping out lawncare wise, now I’ve started my own side business where I do some fertilizer applications and aerification mainly, stuff like that. I don’t do mowing and things, but that business has just kind of been some added, extra income where I’m able to use my skillset and I’ve actually developed that to be a pretty nice little business, so I understand both sides, but I’ve never done sports turf. I love what sports turf people do and how they do it and it’s fascinating and I enjoy how lawn care companies work and other golf superintendents and it’s part of what I enjoy in the business, is just learning from everybody possible.
TTZ: That brings me to your involvement in Maryland Turfgrass Council. How did you decide to get involved in that role as a board member and what do you think is most important about bring a part of a membership like that?
LF: Since I moved out here I’ve been a member of the Mid-Atlantic Golf Course Superintendents. MAGCS is just an awesome group and I’ve really enjoyed supporting them and going to their functions and all that. Then I was like, “Well, it’s time for me to start to give back and how do I want to do it?” And for me and how I feel with wanting to support all sectors of turfgrass, I started looking into the MTC. I was like, that’s possibly a perfect fit for me. They’re going to support golf and sports turf and lawn care and sod growers. Maybe I’ll just reach out and I went to the fall conference that they offer and there was an announcement made that they were looking for possible board members and I was like, “Hey, what the heck…”
So I went to President Ben Ellis and talked to him for a little bit and said I’m interested if you’re looking for people to fill board positions and I talked to some other people in the industry about it and they recommended that I go at it and before I even knew I was on the board, I was asking other people questions of “If I got on the board, what are things you’d like to see different or areas that we need to address?” And that’s how I really came into the position and it’s been great. Of course, the situation with COVID comes in and it’s made it a challenge, but it’s really a great group of people that are supporting turfgrass industry as a whole, which is I think where I fit in best.
TTZ: You’ve had an article that has gotten a lot of great traction and we’ve seen it in several magazines about cooperation among segments of the turfgrass industry. What first turned you onto that specific need? I know that you mention in the article visiting a regional STMA chapter and seeing that you were the only golf course superintendent there. How did that ball get rolling and get so much momentum for you?
LF: I did, I was invited by a good friend of mine, a salesman friend of mine, Scott Orndorff from Landscape Supply. They were a sponsor of that event and he said that the STMA is looking to form a mid-Atlantic chapter and it had been around at one point but then kind of dissolved, so they’re looking to get some more traction and start over. He said “We’re going to have some speakers there and maybe you’d like to meet some different people,” and I jumped on the opportunity. To be honest when I went there, I stayed in the back and just observed and the only people I recognized were the salesmen. Which I was like “Oh, that’s kind of interesting,” I didn’t really know anybody else and I ended up – it was at Camden Yard and Nicole Sherry ends up coming and she’s standing in the back also and I just started chatting with her, just to see what she was thinking. After the meeting we went out and had a social afterwards and ended up spending hours together with this little group of us and I realized, these people are great! First of all, they’re a lot of fun and they’re very smart and they’re doing something that I think I can learn from. At the time I was very interested in the fact that they’re just so detail oriented. We’re detail oriented in golf also, golf’s very technical, but there’s a different level of detail with Major League Baseball field management.
So in golf, I’m like “Oh, they’re managing two acres of turf, that’s gotta be easy.” That sort of mentality, which I think is common. Then once I got into it, I was like, “There’s a lot going into this.” Let’s face it – the pressure of having multimillion dollar athletes playing on the surface you’re managing is very hot, and I respect that and I found that extremely interesting and I wanted to learn more, so after the event, a couple days go by and I just randomly emailed Nicole and said, “Hey, I’d love to learn some more and come down and visit and she just, right away, responded back to me – “You bet. I’d love to have you come down and take a tour.” And that’s how it started. I went down and we had a tour, we had great conversation and I learned a lot from her and she wanted to learn from me and what we do. That’s how it really took off.
When I got home I thought, why was I the only superintendent at this group, supporting these people? Why aren’t we working together on topics that we both would benefit from and we could learn from each other? So that’s really how the article started. I just started brainstorming and sat down at the computer typing one day and it really just flowed out – the things that I’d witnessed, the separation – I didn’t understand why we have it. We could really benefit if we just came together. Let’s face it, the legislative aspect of turfgrass has gotten very strict over the years and I don’t think anybody thinks that’s going away. It’s going to get tougher and sometimes those movements or that legislation is really brought out quickly, and may be misinformed or targeted to something that is very important to us as an industry. So I thought, if we’re all sitting on our own trying to battle these independently, then we’re going to get run over and we need to fight for our industry because we’re all professionals and we’re educated professionals and that’s important that we convey that. So that’s where I reached out to Nicole and I was like, “Is this important? I wrote an article about this,” and she was like, “Absolutely, 100%, that article would be great. We feel the same way, so go ahead and you can use me in it if you want and let’s see what happens.” So I wrote it and I sent it to her for review and she was 100% on board with everything and I talked to some salesmen and a couple of lawncare friends of mine and everyone was on the same page and I found that very interesting – we’d been separated, yet everyone really wanted this information and wants to work together, so it’s a matter of us actually moving forward and doing this and taking the steps, and that’s where I’ve taken it with the article and it’s really gone great from there.
TTZ: I think that kind of parlayed over into — you spoke at the Mid Atlantic Turf Expo, I think at the request of Mike Goatley, is that right?
LF: That’s right.
TTZ: In thinking about how the industry can come together and help each other out among the segments, I know that you mentioned legislation has been a really tough topic in the last couple of years for sure, but also now with COVID-19 restrictions and essential jobs and essential services and I know that you guys got a nice surprise there in Maryland with a notification one afternoon that you could open the next day?
LF: Yes, we all huddled by the TV or the radio to listen to Governor Hogan speak and it was 3:00 and we were all kind of wondering what was going to happen and at 3:13, he announces he’s going to move to Stage 1 and this will allow golf courses to open as of 7am tomorrow. So the next day, 7am. Pretty soon my phone is blowing up from the general manager, the owner contacting me, to other superintendents. It was a mad scramble to some degree. The vast majority of us had done things like pulling all the tee markers off, removing the flag and the cups and that sort of stuff. We all kind of thought we’d have at least a couple days or a day. I fully expected him to be saying on a Wednesday that hey, you can open on a Friday morning. That was what I expected, so when it was such short notice, it was a little bit of a crazy panic, but at the same time it was a good panic.
We’d all been working together and knowing, if it happened, when we reopen, what’s going to be our game plan? So we already kind of had that together, it was just a matter of maybe putting the golf course back together for play and then the short notice was difficult. I had a small staff, like most people at that time, but the pro shop was like all of a sudden that we need to call people that are either on unemployment or are just retired and are taking the time off, but we need help tomorrow. So it was a little bit of an abrupt change there, but everybody was able to work together and it turned out fantastic actually. When I was talking to the GM 15 minutes after the Governor had made the announcement, the phone was ringing in the background, people wanting tee times. Everyone was just bursting to get out. We’ve been extremely busy since then. It slowed down a little bit this week with cooler weather, but up until this point, it really showed that there is a demand for golf and there is a demand for them to be out. That’s beneficial. All the people I talked to have been saying they’re busy, busy, busy and it’s awesome that people are coming out and supporting golf.
During the shutdown, not all of our adjoining states shut down and that put some pressure on Maryland golf in my opinion. Not everyone was adhering to the “don’t cross the state line” thing and some other states were benefitting from Maryland being shut down. So that was tough but it was glad that once we opened back up, people were really here to support us and come back out and it’s been good. I’m not gonna lie, the first day or two, I was driving the cart out on the fairways without even looking, because I was used to nobody being around. Everybody was like, “Hello?” I had to get back into actual golf operations, without trying to get beamed by golf balls or trying to get past people. So that took a little bit to get used to. But my staff, the whole thing, from the moment we shut down… We aerified our greens on a Monday and Tuesday they shut us down, so all of our greens are aerified and I had to let the vast majority of my staff go and just go to a skeleton crew of me, my assistant, a couple of guys that would work maybe two days a week just come in and help up get things mowed. But the staff would text me and say, “Hey, how are you guys doing? Is there anything I can do – I don’t need to be paid, can I just come help?” So that was awesome and I thanked them for that and the members as well, reaching out to know if there’s something that needed to be done. We were able to manage quite well, obviously we did all the practices that most superintendents did – heavy on growth regulators, we pulled all spring fertilizing, just doing everything we could to not promote any growth. I think, Mother Nature is an enemy sometimes, but this spring has been cool and it was wet for a little bit, but then it dried out and the coolness of it just kept everything in check, allowed us to get through mowing things.
I’ve gotta give big thanks and support to all the different agencies, whether it be the Mid-Atlantic Golf Course Superintendents, or GCSAA with all their recommendations for minimal maintenance that everyone was getting to try and get Maryland and other golf back open as soon as possible. Supporting that really showed that there is a big support group out there. And that’s where I am with the article and what I talk to everybody about is, you know when I went and gave the speech down at the M-A-T-E conference for Dr. Goatley, was the idea of supporting everyone. At that time, obviously, we didn’t even know that this was coming up, but the importance was there and this just showed it. Who would have ever thought that golf itself would shut down in a vast number of states? The more people we have to support in those sort of situations is great. It’s beneficial. There’s no real harm in everybody supporting everybody and working together. That’s what I am striving to do, that’s where I hope that the MTC will continue to move towards.
You know the conference that we have at the end of the year, that’s an awesome conference because there’s people from all groups and you just get to see people you wouldn’t normally see and learn from them, and topics from them. That’s just super important, because here’s a perfect example of us all needing to support each other. Let’s face it, the job in general, any sort of turfgrass, Mother Nature beating on you constantly, a lot of the time nothing goes right, it’s important to have that mental support system as well. Somebody that you can just talk to that understands exactly what you’re going through. If you just talk to the general public and say “I’m a golf course superintendent,” they say, first of all, “Are you good at golf?” or “You must play a lot of golf.” And the truth is as I’ve moved up the responsibility ladder, my rounds of golf have greatly gone down, so now I just play a few times a year and that’s usually at our events that we’re putting on or match play.
In general, most people don’t know what you do, what all goes into it. We’ve had people come out to the golf course for outings and you’re talking to them and they think that the grass is fake, it’s like carpet on the greens and you tell them it’s a living thing and they’re just blown away. I’m like, “Trust me, it’s living because every year it dies.” So my whole thing is to educate people and to share what we’re doing, and here at this club I’ve got good support from the ownership, we’re doing things a little bit with native areas, I don’t call them native areas because if they’re native in Maryland, they’re woods. We don’t have a lot of native grassy areas per se. So I consider them to be low input, out of play areas. This last spring, one nice thing about being shut down is it allowed us to grow in extra areas, we might have added 3-5 more acres of areas we’re not mowing with rough. Therefore we don’t need to mow them, spend the fuel, fertilize and do all that stuff. We’re just really minimizing them and the only maintenance we’re putting into them is a fall or a winter mowing to chop things down to keep them from becoming major brushy things. Sometimes it’s not the world’s most beautiful, but what it is is things that are promoting milkweed. I didn’t seed the milkweed in, it just naturally had some small areas – it spread. There’s monarch butterflies all over, a lot of wildlife enjoying these areas.
And I think that’s where golf is headed in the future – lower input, those restrictions are here to stay. In the glory days of the late 90s, early 2000s when golf was in an unbelievable boom and everybody had a million dollar budget and it was just glorious – those are gone. One thing that I think is an important point to make when people think golf courses are harmful to the environment is “Come out to the golf course and take a look. Let’s see what we’re doing.” Like I might say in the article – something to the effect of, it’s hard to think you’re a toxic wasteland when there’s butterflies everywhere. We have everything here, there’s snakes and mice and deer and butterflies and bees – it’s a full environmental thing here, and if we sprayed things that were dangerous to the environment really bad, we wouldn’t have those things. It’s important to convey that to everybody and to show that we’re all professionals.
No golf course survives these days by wasting money. We are down to a few thousand square feet when you’re done spraying the tank. It’s only what we need when we need it. Some people don’t understand that – they might think we’re wasting everything and damaging stuff and that’s where we’re headed in wanting to educate. I’ve reached out to some local senators, and the senator that represents Harford County, JB Jennings, he’s been out with me, toured the golf course. He’s become a big supporter of this club and golf in general, and just to understand the benefit we provide. I think after this COVID stuff, it showed the benefit emotionally to the community to their wellbeing in general and their exercise and the importance to the economy was shown when we reopened.
TTZ: Absolutely. I love the focus on educating the public. I’ve learned over the past couple of year with my work in the turf community, people are very uneducated about exactly what you guys do and I think there are a lot of misperceptions, so I love your focus on bringing the industry together and educating those outside of turfgrass management. It’s really important work and I haven’t met anybody who has learned enough about it that has maintained the negative attitude that you talked about. Let’s wrap up with one last question. What, and maybe this is going to be more of a summary of everything we’ve talked about, but what would your advice be for people entering the turfgrass industry right now?
LF: For that, my advice, I’ve had some employees that have gone on to get a degree of something of that nature. My advice is diversify your skills. Don’t think that you’re just going to be doing one thing. You’re better off having a whole understanding of golf, of turf in general. Yes, if you’re going to be a golf course superintendent, there are going to be specifics. There are things that we deal with more on a daily basis, just the managing of people and the budget aspect. It’s the environment, learning how to convey your position politely and educate people. Develop, right out of the gate, a strong network of people to support you in all aspects of your life. At the end of the day we go home to family and this job can go home with you, especially once you go up, you don’t stop thinking about the golf course and what you’re going to do tomorrow, what’s the weather, where are we at – right now we’re almost headed into June and so we’re about to go into 90 days of very difficult managing conditions, but the way the weather’s been changing, it’s probably almost 120, like all the way through September is pretty difficult. For the young people coming out, it’s important to develop a full support system, and I recommend reaching out to all the different sectors, reaching out to the organizations that they belong in, don’t just belong to the GCSAA, or the local chapter or just the STMA local chapter. You can support both. Join the MTC, which is a great way to support all the different sectors, reach out to professors that you have, keep those relationships, don’t just stay or only talk to professors at Maryland. Reach out to Penn State and Rutgers, or anywhere. Everyone has a different perspective that you can gain from and I think it’s important to remember to have some sort of grounding in not just the job, but also what you do outside of the job and don’t lose that. It is very easy to become consumed and we do.
I was kind of there at some point, especially when I first took over this job. There were 16 hour days consecutive, I was in it just like all in all, the grass is going to be there tomorrow and that’s something that I’ve worked on educating with my assistant, Eric, who’s been with me many years now, started as a guy on the crew but has been a longtime assistant now. It’s important to have a home life and to get away, calm down, shut down, try not to think about golf for just a little bit. And there’s times, days off, where “I’ll probably come up and do some work…” I’m like, “No, do something other than the golf course.” Stay away and decompress so that when you’re here, you’re excited to be here and you’re ready to take on the day. And I also would recommend that young people, or any age people, to find your niche in mentoring and helping people, whether they’re your coworkers, or… you’re part of that educating the public. As soon as you work here, you’re part of spreading the word of what we actually do and why. That’s what I think is important. It’s not just a superintendent’s job or a head groundskeeper’s job to educate, it’s everybody and it stems how your parents or your wife or your siblings or anybody thinks about this industry. It’s important to teach the benefit of what we do and that’s where I take a mentor aspect. Like you’re mentoring the general public as well as people that are actually in the industry. That’s important to really drive home and I think that the general day to day of the job will come with time and with understanding. Sharing the aspect, working with all the different managers is vital and that takes time, you don’t get that right out of college, but you should start like that.
TTZ: That’s great advice, Logan. Thanks so much again for taking the time to chat today.
LF: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share and for sharing the article. I’ve gotten really good feedback on that. It’s important to me and thanks for spreading the good word.READ THE ISSUE