HendersonvilleNews StoriesPete Zamplas

Pittillo grows business beyond sod, to soy beans

By Pete Zamplas –

The enterprising Pittillo family is growing a bumper crop of soy beans to expanding operations beyond turfgrass sod, their main product for a quarter-century that is still plagued by the Great Recession.

Their Turf Mountain Sod at 3275 Chimney Rock Rd. (U.S. 64) East in the Edneyville-Fruitland area was the first sod business in the county, and has lasted 25 years. But owner Fred W. Pittillo said as recession lingers, sales have slowed drastically along with new construction of homes and golf courses. He said he lost money last year, putting his business in peril. “It’s been difficult to survive — we’ve barely done that.”

However, Pittillo is shifting gears to stay afloat by growing soy beans. He is pleased with this new venture. He sold much of his soy beans on the futures market, for a wholesale price 29 percent higher than per-bushel value last year. Yet bean seeds cost him five times more. He will harvest soy in October and November, and deliver into December.

Last year, he tested soy on 150 acres, is up to nearly 700 acres in Henderson and Transylvania counties both owned and rented. “We’ve gone to row cropping” in addition to sod.

So far, so very good. Pittillo estimated soy gross earnings are on track in 2012 to account for nearly half of what mostly sod provided a year ago. He noted this is crucial money, offsetting equipment costs and enabling him to still afford the business’ 24 “dedicated, capable employees.”

“Beans have been our saving grace, with sod sales being so off since before 2008,” noted office manager Linda Bradley, Fred and Merle Pittillo’s daughter.

Produce farming has a standard market price, with bulk sales and fine demand now, Pittillo said. But as with apples, bad weather can damage supply. “You’re at the mercy of the elements,” Pittillo noted.

Sod Squad Grows

This was part of why Pittillo made an earlier career switch, in 1987 to start turfgrass sod production, delivery and installation. “Change is inevitable,” he said. He said that in those early years, as new golf courses boosted sod demand, there were three times as many sod growers in Henderson County as the half-dozen that remain. The state has ranked third nationally in sod production.

“Sod has been very good to us, for the first 21 years,” Pittillo said. He started with four acres of Falcon fescue sod, selling it to a local camp, then expanded to 18 acres in year two. Demand outpaced his farming, so he bought from other growers. He grew sod on up to 1,500 acres, before cutting back to the current 600 acres as demand dwindled below his supply.

“The demand just isn’t there, like it was,” he said. “It’s expensive to maintain sod, if you don’t sell it.” He hopes demand grows back beyond those landscapers and golf courses renovating sites.

A major allure of sod is as a starter lawn, helping homeowners and developers. A mature lawn slashes soil erosion, and cools air by absorbing sun heat and releasing it at night.

Turf Mountain Sod (TMS) specializes in relative cool-season turf suitable for local mountains, with quality and value. Gauging topography and altitude, Pittillo said, “we do fact-finding about where they live, before we recommend a type of grass.”

Looks and feel are other factors. Smooth Bermuda bentgrass is popular for golf, but browns after the first frost. A tall fescue-bluegrass mix is a popular year-round lawn. TMS sells Black Beauty seed it uses, for grow-yourself.

TMS has sodded many baseball fields, discounting to local schools and donating labor to nearest high school North Henderson, Wayne said.

Farmer of Year

Fred Pittillo was North Carolina’s Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year in 2009, four years after Danny McConnell won. Pittillo has led the N.C. Sod Producers Association and served on the Turfgrass Producers International board.

For TMS’ first five years, Pittillo still also ran the family dairy he and a brother bought in the early Seventies. He also grew carrots for Campbell Soup. His family started a dairy in Fruitland in the Forties. They grew carrots, tomatoes and peppers. “We grew feed for the cows; any extra went to sale,” Fred recalled. He milked cows starting at age 4 in 1945, and even now “I can almost tell you what a cow is thinking.”

Fred Pittillo, 71, graduated from Edneyville High in 1959 as “wittiest.” Merle said “he’s very thorough, and makes sure to do it right.” She met him at N.C. State, where he earned a two-year degree from the Agricultural Institute.

Merle is “amazing” as the bookkeeper, Linda said. She describes her family as honest hard-workers. She noted her husband David Bradley, who has a chemical license, “received most of the growing.” Their son Luke Bradley helps part-time. Her sister Candi Mains teaches second grade at Edneyville Elementary.

Another transition is in management, with Wayne Pittillo set to officially become manager at the end of the year. “Wayne is taking over,” Fred said. “He’s ready. He’s always had quite a bit of knowledge.”

Wayne credits his father’s guidance, people skills, can-do attitude and know-how. “He has the expertise.”

Wayne, 50, eldest of three Pittillo offspring, has worked for half of his life in the family sod business. He added responsibilities over the last decade.

For more on Turf Mountain Sod, call 685-3642 or check turfmountain.com.

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