In 1971, three local businessmen bought a sod farm located on Highway 231 about six miles north of Panama City, FL. Now, 50 years later, the same families are operating the sod farm together.
McCall Sod Farm was founded by Howell McCall in 1967, and a few years later James “Jimmy” Maulden, Jack Laird and Percy Simmons bought the farm as partners.
“Originally we bought the land for real estate, but Percy was a farmer at heart,” Maulden said. “He took the farm to the next level. We started with Centipede grass and from there we started to grow the business.”
Maulden recalled back then they would walk behind a Ryan Sod Cutter, cut the sod into 12×24 inch blocks and pick it up off the ground to place on the pallets. He said it’s been remarkable to see how the industry has changed since then.
A few years into running McCall Sod Farm, Simmons wanted to see where they could take the business. So, in 1978, they bought a tract of land in the Southport community, just north of Panama City, and moved the entire sod farm to its current location.
Simmons passed away on Christmas Day in 2000. At that point, Maulden switched from just looking at the farm as an investment to operating it as Simmons had before.
“That was 21 years ago. Between that time up until now we have expanded our farm in both acreage as well as with several different grass varieties,” he said.
McCall Sod Farm consists of approximately 1300 acres, with varieties including: Centipede, Tifway 419 Bermuda, TIFTUF™ Bermuda, Palmetto St. Augustine, Raleigh St. Augustine, Geo Zoysia, EMPIRE Zoysia, El Toro Zoysia, Argentine and Pensacola Bahia.
On October 10, 2018, one of the strongest hurricanes on record to make landfall on the Florida panhandle hit McCall Sod Farm and the surrounding area. Hurricane Michael pushed through the area with sustained winds of 160 mph.“It tore up and destroyed everything. When it was over there wasn’t much left,” Maulden said.
Pictured above (from left) are mobile homes on McCall Sod Farm destroyed by Hurricane Michael and Tammy Lolly’s neighbor’s home flooded after the storm.
Prior to the storm, he and his family traveled about 25 miles north of the farm for safety, but the hurricane hit there too. When they came back, the storm had taken out just about everything in a 20-mile-wide area. McCall Sod farm lost nearly everything, including all of its irrigation systems, barns and houses.
“They’re still tearing houses down now that were destroyed in Michael. We’re still bringing back some of our fields and buildings, but pretty much everything is back online. We still don’t have a barn though because the builders were backed up for two years,” he said.
The farm was without power for over 30 days and since most telephone towers were gone, they didn’t have cell phone service for a long time either. For several months, they started picking up the pieces and were back operating the sod farm and online by Jan. 1, 2019.
“Everyone worked together as a community and helped each other. From the farm end of it, we hauled everything in that we needed from the Pensacola area, such as water and supplies,” he said. “We also had vendors and friends sending pallets of water, Gatorade and other various items. We are very grateful for all of them.”
He shared that they are getting closer to being back where they were before the storm but that it’s taken time. He noted it is hard to give other farms advice on how to get through a storm like that, and that other farms in Central Florida have had similar losses.
“You’ve got to know that it does get better and to just hang in there,” he said.
Maulden, who will celebrate his 78th birthday in April, said that he appreciates the challenges the turf industry presents him and always looks forward to something different every day.
“Over the past 20 years, we’ve expanded the farm with more varieties of sod, but I’m still learning about the sod business. I don’t think we ever quit learning, do we?” he laughed.
As the president of McCall Sod Farm, Maulden manages 33 employees. He said that’s proven itself to be a challenge through the COVID-19 pandemic because he just wants to do his best to keep all of the employees safe and healthy.
Maulden shared that he had COVID for a month and was hospitalized twice due to symptoms. He said that he is recovering but was amazed how his staff kept things running smoothly while he was out. His youngest daughter Nicole came in to assist with bookkeeping while employees were out. Other office employees at the farm who have had it are all doing fine now.
“We’ve been able to operate even with all of the problems with COVID and our business is beginning to pick back up this year,” he said.
McCall sod farm produces grass for commercial, residential and roadside grass installations.
“We’re only a few miles away from the beach. It’s a pretty place to live,” he added.
Maulden noted that the population in the Panama City area has grown from the beach out to where their farm is, and they’re mostly surrounded by neighborhood communities now.
“When we first started, no one was out here,” he said. “In the next few years, I think this North Florida-area market will continue to grow and our farm will continue to grow with it.”
Maulden said they will continue to grow and change grass varieties while increasing production and the number of products they’re moving.
He said they enjoy being a part of the community. Schools and various other groups visit on field trips to learn about the sod farm and local homeowners come directly to the farm to pick up sod to redo their lawns.
Maulden’s favorite part of the job is farming and getting up in the morning to come to work.
“I have a large farm I can ride around and get away from it all; all the pressures in life. I also like seeing the transition from the time we plant sod to when we actually gather it,” he said.
Maulden’s two daughters, Tammy and Amy currently work at McCall Sod Farm with him. Percy’s daughter, Marcia, who owns a third of the farm also works there. He said that they all work for the same common goal to make the farm better.
“Some days are great and some days you’ve got a lot of problems,” he said. “I always say if you run a sod farm, as long as you keep doing the same thing and keep it simple, the better off you are. Everyone knows what to do and a change in direction isn’t always a good thing.”
This article was written by Cecilia Brown.