He doesn’t have a business card or an office. His farm doesn’t even have a sign. But when the NFL, Major League Baseball or college conferences like the SEC need a professional turfgrass playing field, they call Mark Paluch and Bent Oak Farm.
Paluch’s grass is so popular among the top college and professional sports field managers that it’s nearly become legendary. Throughout all his success growing elite turfgrass, Paluch has always preferred to stay out of the spotlight and let his product speak for itself.
But, Paluch’s grass is the best spokesperson anyone could ask for: it has covered all the natural grass fields in the last decade’s Super Bowls. With billions of people watching his handiwork every year, Paluch’s patch of grass may be the most watched in history.
Just a few weeks ago, the field for Super Bowl XLIX left Paluch’s farm in Foley, Ala., inside 34 refrigerated trucks headed for Phoenix. Like a newborn baby, it was carefully rolled and shrink wrapped for the long trip. The refrigeration keeps the grass cool and slows down the growth, Paluch says.
After beginning life on a 200-acre farm in Georgia, each field is transported to Alabama where it is “enhanced,” as Paluch calls it. This enhancement process includes final over-seeding, fertilization and round-the-clock monitoring. Paluch’s grass is base of 419 bermuda grass that is over-seeded with whatever variety his customer specifies. This year’s Super Bowl field is over-seeded perennial ryegrass.
“During the last two weeks before the Super Bowl field went to Phoenix, we practically slept here,” Paluch says. “My guys live eight minutes from the farm in case we need to pull tarps in the middle of the night. Just a quarter of an inch of rain will cost an extra $50,000 in freight.”
Whether it’s the grass for the Super Bowl, an SEC powerhouse like Alabama or Auburn, or a MLB team like the Astros, Braves or Marlins, the team at Bent Oak Farm treats every inch of grass with the same level of care and strict attention to detail.
|Bent Oak Farm At-A-Glance|
|Location: Foley, Ala.|
|Founder & Co-Owner: Mark Paluch|
|Turf: Variety of turfgrass plots grown for major league sports venues around the United States|
|Equipment: Jacobsen LF570 large-area reel mowers|
Bent Oak Farm’s team pulls strings that serve as plumb lines to keep the hand spreaders laser-straight with every pass. An advanced irrigation system with over 1,000 individual heads ensures each blade of grass is watered correctly and consistently. Every detail at Bent Oak farm has been meticulously thought through, including its location.
“I didn’t pick this location by accident. We’re less than two miles from the Gulf of Mexico,” Paluch says. “Being so close to the water keeps us five to eight degrees cooler than surrounding areas. This area is ideal for growing grass, that’s why 400-500 loaded sod trucks leave this county every week.”
Paluch started growing grass in Hawaii during the late ’90s. He started experimenting with growing turf on plastic and eventually perfected a process that produces extremely dense, thick turf that looks and lays down just like carpet. Just how thick is Paluch’s turf? A 41.5-foot by 3.5-foot roll of his turf is the same diameter as a standard 100-foot roll.
Grass that dense, growing on a bed of plastic, needs almost zero soil to grow. The turfgrass world – along with the NFL – found this out during the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami.
“It rained several days before the Super Bowl and an inch during the game itself. Everyone assumed it would be a complete mudslide,” Paluch says. “The expectations of a muddy field forced Vegas odds-makers to list the Chicago Bears as a heavy favorite (over the dome-sheltered Indianapolis Colts) as they excelled in sloppy conditions. I was sitting at home wondering where the mud was coming from because there was no dirt in that grass. I was right – the field played absolutely perfectly that night. You’ll hear the date of that Super Bowl, 2-3-07, a lot around this farm because after that, everything changed for us. The NFL knew we had something special here.”
But for Paluch and his team and Bent Oak, success is about more than growing perfect grass. They’ve also perfected an installation process that produces an extremely tight field with virtually no seams. Paluch spent years tinkering with different tools and inventions before creating the perfect mouse trap.
“We’ve got two machines that lay the grass down just like carpet,” Paluch says. “The first machine can lay 41.5 feet in less than ten seconds. Then we us an excavator with a special 7-foot plate to tuck the grass into itself. The whole process does not leave one mark on the grass – it looks like it was rolled out by hand.”
Another one of Paluch’s favorite tools is his Jacobsen LF570 wide-area reel mower he uses for mowing.
“For what we do here, it’s the best mower I could ask for,” Paluch says. “We produce fields for some of the top sports teams in the world that demand the best of everything. These teams have millions of dollars in player salaries on our fields. They can’t afford the risk of a player being injured as the result of a sub-par field.”
For Mark Paluch, the outcome of Super Bowl XLIX isn’t important – he’s already chalked it up as another victory for the famous grass of Bent Oak Farm.