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My father, the turf nerd

February 16, 2018

Richter, smiling through the dirt after a long day of fraze mowing.

My father, Paul Richter, is the turfgrass agronomist for Turf Services Inc., in Spring Lake, Mich. He is also a master mower. One of the highest forms of praise I got growing up was, “Nice job mowing the lawn. It looks good.”

When he was superintendent of Spring Lake Country Club (SLCC), a position he held for 15 years, one of his favorite job duties was mowing fairways. Even after getting out of the superintendent business he would go back to SLCC on weekends and mow greens, just because he liked to.

It’s this kind of outdoor work that drew Richter to the turfgrass industry in the first place. He initially attended the University of Michigan to study athletic training, but after about two years turned his sights on greener pastures — literally — and transferred to Michigan State University to earn his degree in Turfgrass Management.

“I started working on golf courses and I liked the outdoor work as much as anything,” he says. “I liked working outside and I liked learning the equipment, which they let me do even when I was just a grounds crew guy. I realized I liked the science of taking care of plants as opposed to the science of taking care of people.”

Grow grass, grow

Richter doesn’t spend quite as much time on the golf course these days, but he still gets to operate equipment and work outdoors, as he installs and cares for natural turf athletic fields throughout Michigan.

The Western Michigan University soccer field was fraze mowed and seeded on May 18. The women’s soccer team played its first scrimmage 81 days later, on Aug. 7. According to the coach, the field was great.

Making the switch from working exclusively with golf courses to working with athletic fields was a deliberate decision for Richter. He had been working in sales, providing golf courses with fertilizers, fungicides, and seed — basically anything they needed to improve the health of their turf — but wanted to get back to his roots. Joining Turf Services allowed him to marry the skills he gained as a superintendent with those he used in sales.

“I wanted to get back to doing something more hands-on where I could use my sales skills and my grass growing skills,” Richter says. “I could help grow the business and grow some grass.”

And grow grass he does. One of the services that Turf Services offers is fraze mowing. Though fairly uncommon in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region due to their shorter growing season, the company has found success using the process to strip fields of Poa annua and reseed with Kentucky bluegrass.

Fraze mowing projects are especially fun for Richter, who loves the satisfaction of stripping a field bare and watching healthy turf spring up. Hearing him talk about one of these projects is like hearing him talk about the accomplishments of his own children. Though humble, it is clear that Richter takes great pride in his work.

Richter’s father, my grandpa, was an avid Western Michigan University fan, which makes the projects Richter gets to do for the University, like applying topdressing to the baseball field, extra special.

“We fraze mowed and regrassed the football field at Mona Shores High School, which was fun because we took all the grass completely out and reseeded it on May 5 and they played their first football game on Aug. 27,” Richter says of one summer 2017 project. “We did the Western Michigan soccer field last year, too. We fraze mowed off the grass and regraded the field and then seeded it and grew it in. We seeded on May 18 and they played their first game on Aug. 20.”

When discussing fraze mowing projects, Richter is always specific about dates, feeling that they emphasize that grass, when properly cared for in infancy, will grow swiftly and lushly in a matter of months.

Turf, naturally

Richter is a vocal advocate of the advantages of playing on natural turf, the durability of the playing surface and the relative ease with which it can be replaced.

“Artificial turf has its place where there is intense use in a school system, but I think that with proper construction and care, a natural turf field can perform as well as an artificial surface,” he says.

According to Richter, natural turf is cooler on a hot summer day and easier on an athlete’s body than its artificial counterpart. Though, he jokes, if a natural field is dry, both playing surfaces are going to be like concrete.

If there is one thing Richter is just as passionate about as natural turf, it’s teaching his family about his work and making sure he keeps his own skills sharp. My sisters and I were always out on the course with him when we were growing up. He taught us to appreciate what he did by involving us in what he did.

We learned how to cut cups and helped out around the shop. Last year I learned to drive the tractor and work the deep-tine aerating machine because, according to Richter, “Nothing makes you feel better than learning a new skill.”

The football field at St. Joseph High School in St. Joseph, Michigan, one of Turf Services’ fraze mowing projects, 35 days after fraze mowing and seeding.

Richter has applied this philosophy to his own life with gusto. When new career opportunities in the industry presented themselves, he jumped at the challenge of learning a new aspect of the business. Before taking his job with Turf Services, Richter volunteered as a member of the grounds crew of a local baseball field, just so he could get some hands-on experience caring for a ball field.

“I thought it would be fun and a good way to learn what was needed to take care of a batter’s box and pitcher’s mound and infield,” Richter says. “It gave me a chance to learn that and learn it being in their shoes, so I could do my job better.”

As a turfgrass agronomist he has learned a new set of equipment and a lot of new skills, like building pitcher’s mounds, deep tine aerating and installing drainage systems.

Ultimately it’s Richter’s love of learning that fuels his continued enthusiasm for his job and the industry in which he works.

“It still remains really interesting to me,” he says. “You’re always learning something. Even though it’s the same old grass every year, there’s always something new to figure out or do better.”

Written by Clara Richter. Richter is managing editor of Athletic Turf’s sister publication, LP Gas magazine.

Photos: Matt Heiss (1,3), Paul Richter (2,4)

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