Tennessee Turfgrass Association – Turfgrass is a Family Legacy for Tom Samples Professional of the Year Recipient Bob McCurdy
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Tennessee Turfgrass – Julie Holt, Content Director, TheTurfZone.com
If you want to visit Dyer, Tennessee, you’ll have to be going there on purpose. It’s not really on the way to anywhere, and for most people it’s not exactly a destination. But for the McCurdy family, it’s both the starting and end points of a journey built on a legacy of faith, community, and honest work.
Located in Dyer, McCurdy Sod Farms is a turfgrass island in the sea of row crops on the flat, fertile landscape of northwest Tennessee. The McCurdy family has called this area home for generations, and their impact has gone far beyond the land and soil they cultivate. Bob McCurdy, the 2022 recipient of the Tom Samples Professional of the Year award, is the senior partner of the farm and a stalwart leader in both Dyer, Tennessee and the turfgrass community.
Bob McCurdy’s influence in the sod production segment has certainly been immense, but it’s the impression he’s made across the industry that has allowed him to be a true leader and example for turfgrass professionals of all stripes.
A Change of Course
Like so many others, the McCurdys began their farming days in row crops. Anyone familiar with the area will tell you that outside of Memphis, west Tennessee is nothing but farmland, with the occasional small town built in the middle of it. While the industrial landscape in the area is now ramping up with the incoming Ford megasite near Memphis, for decades, career choices have funneled heavily to farming and manufacturing. It is this culture that nurtures the love of the land that local farmers need in order to make it through the lean years. Bob McCurdy says he knew very early that he wanted to raise his three children on the farm, and to provide them with the opportunity to continue that family business as they grew up.
When the row crop route dealt some blows that the family farm, then run by Bob and his father, Raymond, couldn’t overcome, they began looking for new opportunities to keep the family farm alive. Some short-term solutions included vegetables and seed cleaning operations, but it was a construction project where the seed of sod farming was planted.
“We were doing some conservation construction — backhoe work, dirtpan work. Those sites always needed some type of erosion control. We had all these pastures where we had cows, and we’d go out and steal a little bermudagrass and place in those areas,” Bob says. “Our closest sod farm was in Mississippi. But nobody did that, everybody that we knew and in our area were green thumbs, ag-related.”
In 1986, when Bob and Suzanne’s twins, Jay and Tom were just two years old, the simple beginning of McCurdy Sod Farm was when “we bought a little grass and put out enough to plant a couple acres.” By 2006, sod was the only crop the farm was growing. But those 20 years are not to be overlooked. Because of their determination to continue the family business, through the years, the McCurdys added acreage and staff to their operation. Jay and Tom, along with their younger sister Liz grew up on a family farm, just as Bob and Suzanne had hoped. “We did it, which was quite a success, in our opinion. We weathered some storms getting there, but eventually got out of vegetables and row crops, and we concentrated on sod.”
While the three kids did grow up on the farm, it wasn’t the path they all chose for careers. Tom graduated from Vanderbilt University and is currently stationed on Coronado Island in California, where he serves in the Navy. Jay stayed in the family business of turfgrass, although not on the farm. After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Tennessee at Martin, his Masters in Turfgrass Weed Science at UT Knoxville, he completed his Ph.D. work at Auburn University. He how works at Mississippi State University as a Professor and Extension Specialist. Liz left Dyer for a brief time, but returned home, where she and her husband Ben settled and became partners in the family farm. Each of Bob and Suzanne’s kids has two children of their own, and with Liz and Ben living nearby and working on the farm, another generation will have the privilege to grow up there.
Growing… Grass, a Business, Community and the Industry
Currently, McCurdy Sod Farm is around 500 acres and employs six full time, year-round staff, a number that doubles in the spring and summer months. “We use the H-2A Program. We’ve hired some of the same guys for years. Experience matters. They’re the backbone of the hard work,” Bob says. He shares that it has been a privilege to be able to provide a steady, long-term job for several community members as well, and that he has continued the practice that Raymond started — hiring local high school kids, many of whom came back for the summer even through college. Of his employees he says, “It has been a real blessing to get to know them and their families.”
While operating the farm is most certainly more than a full-time job, Bob doesn’t feel his responsibilities to the turfgrass industry stop there. In his decades of work, he has served on several industry association boards and has been a dedicated member. Bob is a past president of TTA and served on the board for eight years. He is a founding member of Midsouth Turfgrass Council, which represents five states and 25-30 sod farmers, and serves the primary purpose of raising funds for university research.
In January, Bob began his tenure as President of Turfgrass Producers International (TPI), an organization which exists to serve the turfgrass production industry “by uniting and representing turfgrass sod and seed producers as well as the many suppliers and manufacturers who are a part of this thriving industry.” This role requires a significant amount of time and some travel. One of the organization’s primary goals in the near future is a vote on a Sod Checkoff program, an industry-funded initiative that helps improve the market position of natural grass. “It’s an uphill battle, but one I think is worthy to pursue,” Bob shares.
While industry work is certainly a big commitment for Bob, his dedication to the Dyer community is also a top priority. Bob serves on the board of Gibson Electric, which has installed broadband in the area; he has been a Boy Scout leader for 20 years; and he serves on the County Industrial Development board, which was instrumental in the Tyson development negotiation. If you haven’t lived in a rural community, it may be easy to underestimate the importance of these groups and initiatives. In economically depressed areas, small communities struggle to keep a strong workforce and the opportunities and quality of life that encourage young people to stay. This is one of Bob’s main motivations to be a leader in the community. “Community is important to all of us. I have tried to do as much as I can to give back. I think I’m still a little behind, I still owe more. I appreciate what the community has done for us.”
Bob and Suzanne are lifetime members of Methodist Church. Bob says their faith has been the most important thing in their lives and has gotten them through the good times and bad. Dyer community member and longtime family friend Tom Orr says, “Bob has served on many local community boards and is involved in Scouts. He is a true businessman, community supporter and devoted family man.”
For as much effort and dedication as Bob has shown to his neighbors and his family, the natural overflow of that has been a gift to the turf community. It is no secret that Bob’s work ethic, commitment and humility are the reasons he’s had such success and influence on his peers for all these years.
Upon being recognized for this high honor, Bob shared his appreciation. “A really elite bunch of folks have already gotten this award. The first person I remember was Joe Kennedy. I remember thinking ‘Wow, this guy’s something special. What an honor it is to get something like this from your peers.’ Especially as a sod farmer, because this is a golf association. To have been able to achieve or influence or baffle your way through is such a nice thing. But it is special to me, and special to my family, especially to Jay because he understands the significance. I hope that I can continue to earn what’s been bestowed in this award. I wish my dad could’ve have known and could have been here, he probably earned it more than I did. It worries me the folks that deserve it that haven’t gotten it, some more deserving than me. I want to thank those who thought enough of me to give me a chance.”
“We owe a big debt to Dr. Samples. When we started, had it not been for Tom to guide us through it, I’m not sure how far we could’ve gotten. He took us under his wing and extension has been a big benefit to us.” Dr. Samples’ guidance and his friendship with Raymond McCurdy were an integral part of the beginning of McCurdy Sod Farm, and to come full circle with Bob receiving TTA’s highest honor is a wonderful full circle moment for the family and the business.
While Bob insists that he was not cut out for sitting still, and has plenty of work ahead of him, he and Suzanne have made some tentative plans for when the succession plan is complete and Ben and Liz are the primary operators of McCurdy Sod Farms. He says he’ll always be involved in the farm in some capacity, and with the changing landscape in the area, there are still plenty of big decisions to be made about the direction of the business. But what about a traditional retirement plan? Bob admits he’s unsure of exactly how that will look. “Suzanne and I like to travel. I don’t have a lot of hobbies. I run, but I’ve messed a knee up, and can’t run like I used to. Community is one, but those need to go to younger people too.”
There’s no doubt that Bob will find plenty to keep him busy, and his leadership has created a legacy in his family, his community and in the turf industry. Congratulations, Bob, on your well-earned recognition as TTA’s Tom Samples Professional of the Year and thank you for your dedication to the association and the greater turfgrass industry!READ THE ISSUE