Sod Farm of Over 45 Years Expands Business Across Tennessee
In high school, Bobby Winstead, the owner of Winstead Turf Farms, would spend his spare time growing vegetables on his father’s small farm in Lakeland, TN. He grew, harvested and sold butter beans, tomatoes, field corn and black-eyed peas at a roadside stand beside the farm. Meanwhile, his father, Robert Lee Winstead Sr., had a friend who owned a nearby nursery. The two would meet frequently for breakfast and the friend would ask Robert instead of vegetables, could his son start growing some zoysiagrasses for his nursery.
So, Bobby and his dad planted 11 acres of zoysiagrass in 1978, officially beginning their sod farming adventure. In 1983, additional farms were added in Arlington. Now, with almost 1,100 acres of sod farms, Bobby has grown an operation that is known widely throughout the state of Tennessee.
“We just kept expanding the types of grasses and then in the early 90s, we realized there was a demand for grasses that we didn’t have in our areas. So that’s when we first went to Texas A&M,” Bobby said. That’s when Winstead Turf Farms started growing its first two proprietary grasses: Palisades Zoysia and Royal Zoysia. Two of his newest varieties are Latitude 36® Bermudagrass and NorthBridge® Bermudagrass.
“We definitely realized proprietary turfgrasses were the way for us to go. This made more sense,” he added.
Winstead Turf Farms prides itself on offering the most innovative varieties. Bobby said that he likes both NorthBridge and Latitude 36 for the same reasons; the regrowth period is very quick and both are cold tolerant.
“I think Latitude 36 fits golf better than Northbridge and I think Northbridge fits stadium grasses like football and soccer fields better than Latitude does. Color is great on both and tensile strength we’ve had good success with. Northbridge has always had really, really good tensile strength,” Bobby said. “We’ll be growing those two varieties for a while.”
When it comes to working with customers to ensure they’re getting the right grass for their situation, Bobby said if he knows what they’re looking for then the customer can leave the decision in his hands to pick the right grass for them. He said customers call and ask which grasses do best in shade, in droughts, with pets, in the cold, etc. He said they are pleased with the grass varieties grown at Winstead Turf Farms, as they handle almost all of these factors.
Turfgrass Producers International
Bobby took his expertise in the industry and served on the board of Turfgrass Producers International from 2003-07. Then, he left for a while and came back onto the board when his children graduated high school. “I went through the secretary, treasurer, vice president, president and past president positions. I was the President of TPI in 2012 and it just opened up a tremendous number of doors and we met people from all over the country and all over the world,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have gotten invited to meet with international businesses and have so many different opportunities from this organization.”
He said being an active member was a major time commitment, adding about a month per year to his workload. “I think anybody that gets the opportunity to do it should do it, but don’t think it’s not going to be a lot of work,” he said. He encouraged anyone interested in joining the TPI Board to consider how much time their stage of life or business career will allow them to dedicate to the organization.
Bobby said the growth of his farm happened gradually, over time. He considers himself more of a real estate investor than a ‘sod guy.’ Over the years, he focused on buying properties in the growth plane of Memphis-related expansion for residential and commercial. The original Lakeland acres have been developed into a residential area called Winstead Farms, consisting of nice, higher-end houses.
Bobby explained he normally utilizes the farmland he owns for growing turfgrass until the property value becomes enough for him to decide to develop on it. So, his business has moved several times as he’s progressively purchased land and developed more housing along the way. This trend of expansion has also happened simultaneously with the housing boom in the Memphis metro area.
Winstead Turf Farms mainly grows proprietary grasses that they ship from Memphis and West Tennessee farms to Nashville. But within the past few years, Bobby purchased two new farms located closer to Nashville. The first is Hurricane Mills, a 200-acre farm with turfgrass designated specifically for landscape and golf clients. Next, he bought Lobelville Farm, a 116-acre farm located just south of Hurricane Mills on the same interstate exit. Bobby said these land acquisitions have allowed them to shorten their delivery time to customers in this region of Tennessee. More recently, in addition to these two farms, Bobby also bought another farm outside of Memphis that they plan to plant this spring, adding another 700-800 acres to Winstead Turf Farms.
Winstead Turf Team
With multiple farms growing several grass varieties, Bobby said that his staff is what keeps everything running smoothly. His wife, Kim helps run all Winstead Turf Farms operations and manages their books. “She keeps everything in line,” Bobby said.
Bobby hired the former superintendent of Germantown Country Club, Doug Estes, about seven years ago as a farm manager. Now, Estes is the General Manager of Winstead Turf Farms. Coming from a golf background, Bobby said it changed Estes’ perspective going from overseeing about 200 acres on a course to maintaining almost 2,000 acres of turfgrass on the farms.
Whit Davis, former golf course superintendent of the Groves Golf Course in Nashville, recently joined Winstead Turf Farms as the manager of the two new farms in Lobelville, near Nashville. “He knows his turfgrasses, so I don’t have to worry about checking on what he’s doing or telling him what fertilizers to apply to maintain quality grass,” Bobby said. The two met back in the 90s when Bobby did some work for Spring Creek Ranch and they just kept in touch over the years.
“We are really fortunate to have both of those additions to my team. Doug and Whit handle the day-to-day and tell me when to get out of the way, so to speak,” he added.
In addition to his real estate and farming operations, Bobby also owns a general store called S.Y. Wilson and Company. “We sell active apparel for outdoor activities like hiking, running, camping, fishing and have leisure, casual clothing. We also sell kayaks, fishing equipment, knives and other outdoor activity items,” he said. Bobby’s 31-year-old son, Robert, runs the store as a manager and buyer. Their daughter, Shelby makes and sells jewelry at the store when she isn’t barrel racing horses all over the Southeast.
Given its reputation in Tennessee, Winstead Turf Farms has supplied quality turfgrass for many various sports fields and golf courses in the region.
A couple of years ago they renovated Chickasaw Country Club in Memphis, a high-end private Country Club. They started out needing 10 acres of Latitude 36 for some approach areas and collars. Bobby said they liked it so much that they ended up installing over 20 acres. “They more than doubled what they needed because they liked it so much.”
In addition to this club, they’ve supplied Latitude 36 for the following clubs in the Nashville and Memphis areas over the past two years: Belle Meade Country Club’s driving range tee, Hillwood Country Club, Bluegrass Country Club, Franklin Bridge Golf Club, Vanderbilt Legends Club, Memphis National and Memphis Country Club.
Since 2020, they’ve also installed Latitude 36 on Cornerstone Sports Plex’s 12 baseball/softball fields in Starkville, Mississippi as well as the City of Lakeland’s seven multi-use fields in Lakeland, Tennessee. Those fields are used for soccer, lacrosse, flag football and football. Latitude 36 was also used by five builders for the lawns for the fall 2021 Vesta Home Show.
Winstead Turf Farms has supplied NorthBridge for the soccer field and football fields at Rhodes College in Memphis and the practice football field at the University of Memphis. They also recently supplied NorthBridge for eight new soccer and baseball fields for the City of Southaven, MS Parks and Recreation Department.
Bobby shared that another connection from serving on TPI’s Board of Directors led to him working with Evergreen Matrix. “I got close with Rob Davy at Evergreen Turf in Australia and at one of the (TPI) conventions and he asked us to look at this matrix system he’d trademarked. At that time, there was a lot of grass being grown on plastic. The Matrix system they’ve invented is a mesh pad that goes on the plastic under the grass that the root system grows into, making it a lot more stable and it lasts a lot longer,” Bobby explained.
At any given time, Winstead Turf Farms is growing roughly four acres of turfgrass on the Evergreen Matrix system. “That’s enough for two stadiums. The first big stadium job that we did with the Matrix was the University of Arkansas Razorback’s Stadium in Fayetteville. In that contract, we had to have a full additional field ready in case they had any catastrophic failure. In the three years that grass has been there, we’ve only replaced about 80 square yards,” he said.
“I’m the only one in North America that has this system. Evergreen Turf gave it to us exclusively and we’ve had some really good prospects,” Bobby said. The COVID-19 pandemic halted a lot of their prospects and test sites on the collegiate side when ticket sales to sporting events ceased in 2020. As ticket sales and game attendance pick back up, Bobby anticipated they’ll have more prospects for this system soon.
Several years ago, Winstead Turf Farms added Turf Logistics, a software management system for sod farms, to help with the amount of work they were undertaking. “We were getting overwhelmed, especially during the summertime when we were running anywhere from 18-30,000 yards of grass a day out,” Bobby said. “The record-keeping and logistics of Turf Logistics has really changed the face of our shipping and order management.”
Bobby said that it has also helped cut down on miscommunication among their harvesting crews and deliveries. “Now our office employees have more time to answer customers’ questions instead of running down where a truck driver should be.”
Estes, the GM, explained this was a beneficial transition after being a notepad order company from 1978 to 2016. “The efficiency of our order entries and filling out our days allow us to maximize our output. The reports and records allow us to see our day-to-day and year-long sales at the click of a button,” Estes said.
Through Turf Logistics, Winstead Turf Farms is in the process of adding ClickSod, an online eCommerce platform for their website, to get sales moving for their new Nashville area farm. They’re getting a new website designed too. “Our website needed some help and we used to use other web designers, but with Sod Solutions being turfgrass oriented and savvy, we felt like we can get our message out to customers more so than with someone that doesn’t know turfgrass.”
Estes said while it’s not live yet, they’ve been very pleased with the new website design that’s currently underway.
For more information, visit www.winsteadturffarms.com.
This article was written by Cecilia Brown.