Modern Turf President, Hank Kerfoot, Knows His Grasses
Former superintendent finds industry longevity and fulfillment leading a sod production company he established.
Article By Cecilia Brown of Sod Solutions, via Golf Course Industry
Modern Turf founder and President Hank Kerfoot, a sod farmer providing high-quality turfgrass in and around South Carolina and North Carolina, comes from a golf-rich family background. His father, who is 87 years old, is an accomplished golfer who attended Wake Forest and played golf with Arnold Palmer. Kerfoot grew up as a caddy for his dad at their local country club in Arlington, Virginia.
“I just grew up around golf grass,” Kerfoot says. “I started mowing lawns when I was 12 and started caddying when I was 12. I started working on a golf course when I was 15 and just always have had a little bit of a green thumb.”
Kerfoot adds that he barely graduated high school and spent several years afterward dabbling in different careers. From cooking to installing computer cables in old buildings in Washington, D.C., to working on golf courses, Kerfoot was looking for the right fit.
“I just kept coming back to golf courses,” he says. He decided to take community college classes so universities would consider accepting him, and he ended up going to what at the time was called Lake City Community College in Lake City, Florida.
To enroll at Lake City, applicants needed to have worked on a golf course for at least a year. “So, you couldn’t just graduate high school and decide you wanted to go into turfgrass,” Kerfoot says. “You had to have experience.”
Kerfoot appreciated the fact that students shared and applied the knowledge from their experiences working on golf courses in the classroom and into real life. He started the three-year program for the associate of science degree in golf operations when he was 23 years old. At that time, he had a lot of experience working on cool-season grasses in Virginia, Maryland and the Washington, D.C., area.
“By then I’d also worked as a bellman in the Florida Keys at the Ocean Reef Club,” he says. “I’d had a little taste of the South and had decided that I felt like there was more golf for more days of the year the farther south you went and more opportunities. I figured if I went to a southern school and I had northern experience, then I could go anywhere.”
Kerfoot completed internships at TPC Avenel in the Beltway area and TPC Prestancia in Sarasota, Florida. He worked at TPC Sawgrass throughout college. His first job out of college was in Bermuda working as the assistant golf course superintendent at Port Royal Golf Course for three years. Next, he moved to Charlotte where he was the superintendent at Carmel Country Club for four years.
Then, Kerfoot got involved in building golf courses. He helped build Firethorne Country Club in Charlotte and rebuilt Smoky Mountains Golf Club in Whittier, North Carolina. He got involved with a company that was going to buy, build and manage golf courses in the Carolinas. As they were looking for projects, the company sent Kerfoot to Puerto Rico to install a sod farm for a client there.
“I was always fascinated with new grasses,” he says. “I would find them, I would plant them, I would try to kill them — which I’m apparently successful at. But I would just try to learn about it because it’s just my thing.”
As he was working on the course in Puerto Rico, Kerfoot started thinking about what was next for him in his career. He and his wife, Mary, started looking at some new opportunities — perhaps owning a mom-and-pop golf course in Myrtle Beach.
Kerfoot says he loved being a golf course superintendent but thought sod farming would be intriguing because he could use all his knowledge and contacts to help him as he started. He and Mary were starting their family at the time, too, and he was excited about switching to a job that allowed him more time spent with them instead of traveling for work. The Kerfoots have three children, all young adults now: Henry, Sarah and Libby.
“We decided to look for some flat land in central South Carolina that had access to water and an interstate,” Kerfoot says. “We found the Rembert farm, our first farm and bought it in February 2000.” After a few years, they realized they needed more land and Kerfoot found another farm 10 miles down the road.
Kerfoot says continuing education is a must in the turfgrass industry. When he was in college and some late-afternoon classes were filled with explanations of new varieties, many of his friends would skip and go out to the bar for a beer. Kerfoot would sit in the front row trying to learn about all the new grasses.
“I knew what paspalum was before anybody could even say paspalum,” he jokes. “I was curious and just thought it was cool to hear the talks on new grasses.”
Kerfoot’s Lake City Community College roommate was John Holmes, now the president of Atlas Turf. “The turfgrass industry is a small fraternity. If you’ve been around long enough, it’s specialized,” Kerfoot says. “It’s highly intelligent people who are very motivated and very passionate about what they do.”
He estimates maybe 15 of his college classmates are still in the industry in golf or turfgrass. “I think the people that are in it for the long haul just have a genuine love for it,” he says.
Turfgrass Producers International
In his early days as a sod farmer, Kerfoot became involved with Randy Graff, founder of Graff’s Turf Farm in Colorado, who discussed raising the prices of sod. He recalled that when he attended his first SC Sod Producers Association meeting around the same time, he heard that they hadn’t raised the prices of sod in almost 20 years. “I almost threw up because my business plan didn’t show that,” Kerfoot says. “As I became more involved, I ended up becoming the president of South Carolina Sod Producers and led it for almost 10 years straight.”
Kerfoot says he was outspoken and enjoyed being involved. At his first TPI meeting, he was almost recruited onto the board but he felt it was too early for him to contribute. Plus, he and Mary were raising three young children and he was getting his sod business up and running.
About 10 years ago, members started to recruit Kerfoot again to join TPI’s board. Now, he’s served on the executive committee, as president and as past president of the organization. He stint as president included the February 2020 TPI conference in Orlando as well as the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, his time on the board is nearing its end as the February 2022 TPI conference in San Diego approaches.
“It’s been a very enriching, very valuable process,” he says. “One, to be able to contribute to the greater good of the sod-producing community but then also the personal payback and what you get through, meeting regularly with other industry leaders throughout the world, particularly in the U.S. but also Canada and internationally as well.”
Serving on the board allowed him to broaden his horizons and enjoy being in a group where the goal is to make sod farmers comfortable sharing information with each other. When he was in the golf industry, everyone shared information with each other to make everybody better. He is trying to get that cooperation across the sod industry, which is more competitive because farmers are essentially competing for the same dollar.
“There’s a camaraderie but it’s not the same,” he says. “But when you go to TPI you can talk to a guy from Texas who grows the exact same grass as you do and you can talk about equipment, you can talk dollars and talk about things without feeling like you’re giving away your greatest trade secrets.”
He adds that younger generations don’t always see the value in associations because they can get information and network online or through social media. Kerfoot is hopeful things come full circle and younger generations realize the human condition makes us want to be in a room with other humans.
“That’s the magic of TPI,” he says. “We as the board always say, If we can just get them to come to one annual conference and let them see, smell, touch, feel and be around the camaraderie and the actual education you get from other people … For me, in my background with turfgrass that’s been from day one.”
Kerfoot was involved in theater in both high school and college. Part of what appealed to him about professional golf tournaments was the stage. The PGA Tour to him was like a great drama. “It’s impromptu in that you don’t know the outcome,” he says. “It’s great theater, especially if you love the game, and I have a deep love for the game (of golf).”
Kerfoot is thankful for being able to be outside, not in an office with four walls, and being able to interact with people. His experience caddying and working on different golf courses allowed him to learn what that atmosphere was like.
“I was very comfortable around the members and I just loved it, just the peace of it all and the beauty of being outside,” he says. “Also, the sensation of having really good greens. It all comes down to the greens. When you’re on a golf course you get judged by the putting greens. If you could manage the greens, then the golfers were happy.”
At Modern Turf, the core four employees — Kerfoot, Randy Allen, Buddy Smith and B.J. Haunert — are all former golf course superintendents. A few other staff members have worked on courses as well.
“We’ve had more on staff before who were golf course superintendents,” Kerfoot says. “It helps. We grow three different types of Bermudagrasses and we all do installs ourselves and participate. Some of us have been doing it for 20 years and we aren’t getting any younger.
“You gotta have someone that can walk the walk and talk the talk on a golf course, in my opinion, to be able to go out there and have credibility. You need that when talking with them about fertility, chemicals and plants and benefits and all that. And not just for the golf course superintendent, but when you’re out there planting them it’s like Christmas Day for these clubs when they are getting new greens.
“Golf is about greens. No matter what anybody tells you, it comes down to the greens.”
Kerfoot says that when Modern Turf installs new greens, it’s a great public relations opportunity for the company, even if the club has skilled laborers who could plant it without them, because their staff knows the ins and outs of the grass. Whether members or staff come out to help, their team has to know the lingo and how to maneuver around the course with maintenance etiquette to make sure their tractors and trucks don’t mess up the turf.
Modern Turf is innovative on the research side of the industry thanks to involvement with research trials. Currently, the research plots at the farm consist of Celebration X, an ultra-fine zoysia study, Iron Cutter Bermuda, paspalums from the University of Georgia and the 14069 zoysia line from NC State University. Kerfoot says they have planted Innovation Zoysia around those plots, as well as some Geo Zoysia.
He has a big interest in testing new grasses but didn’t like just looking at what he considers car hood-size sod plots. “It just didn’t tell me enough,” he says.
Kerfoot started talking with Sod Solutions president Tobey Wagner, University of Florida turfgrass researcher Kevin Kenworthy, his old roommate Holmes of Atlas Turf, and with JW Turf Farms in Florida to try to get bigger plots so they could take a better look at zoysias. “Whether we get a putting green variety out of them or not, I think it’s good exercise — and I’m sure we’ll get something out of it.”
Kerfoot believes allowing a harder look at a grass variety before it goes to production will help avoid issues in the future. “To get out in front of it and take a little bit of ownership of the research and to get into it will hopefully yield us some reward at the end. Maybe not necessarily exclusive — because that’s not always a good thing, I’ve learned that — but maybe at least a first right of refusal on something really good to have open up equity in would be a good thing.”
Kerfoot adds that you need good growers who you can trust to trade inventory with, as well as being able to market a new grass well to consumers. “That’s one of Sod Solutions’ greatest strengths, is the marketing,” he says. “You gotta have three things: well-marketed grass, really good grass and really good people growing it.”
Modern Turf has been a part of at least 10 First Tee projects across the Carolinas and Tennessee. Kerfoot donated sod for most of them, unless the projects were already well-funded. “I think everybody has to do that, no matter what industry you’re in,” he says. “Everybody should have a sense of duty to their community to give back.”
Every Saturday, Modern Turf donates a pallet of centipede grass to Food for the Soul, a local soup kitchen in Camden. Volunteers at the soup kitchen sell each piece of sod for $2, keeping the profit, and help load it into the buyer’s vehicle. Kerfoot says this is another easy way to give back that makes an impact towards meals.
Modern Turf has helped build around 20 Habitat for Humanity houses. Kerfoot says the company has volunteered to lay donated sod; other times, the company has donated sod and high schoolers who need service points have helped lay it.
Kerfoot is hopeful that whenever TPI travels for various conventions, they will take time as a group to contribute or volunteer with a service project. Kerfoot also looks forward to staying involved with community service projects similar to the Sergeant Jasper Golf Course, a golf course revitalization project where he donated Sunday Ultra-Dwarf Bermudagrass greens and installation efforts last spring.