Thomas Turfgrass: “Living the Dream”
Thomas Turfgrass is a longtime, well-known sod producer and installation business in Wharton, Texas. The sod company prides itself on its family operation and pleasing customers throughout the entire process of purchasing new grass.
Emory Thomas is the owner of Thomas Turfgrass, managing the operations of four sod farms spanning the area around Wharton, Austin County and Bastrop County. In high-seasons, they have roughly 70 employees and in the low-season, they have somewhere around 40.
He complimented his employees’ positive attitude towards work and said it is what makes running a sod farm and business so rewarding.
“It’s a good way to make a living. The fact that I can work with my family and that we have a great team to work with,” Emory said. “It’s just my happy place out on the farm growing grass and solving problems. It’s a dream come true.”
Emory’s father, Emory Augustus (E.A.) Thomas Jr. started the sod business back in 1969 after one of the family’s lifelong friends in the area convinced E.A. and Emory’s grandfather it was a good way to make a living.
The Thomas family had been involved in the dairy industry for years, but Emory said when Lake Granbury, a reservoir in North Texas, was created it took away most of their grazing land for their cows.
The Thomas family planted turfgrass on what remained of their land and this began their sod farming operation.
“I liked it a whole lot better than the dairy business and there seemed to be more opportunity in the sod business. I really enjoyed it. To be honest, it was and is a lot of work but it’s very rewarding in my opinion,” he said.
Emory was in junior high when his dad started the company, Thomas Brothers Grass. He said he saw it then the same way as he does now, an opportunity for him to work together with his family.
Emory and his three brothers worked together with their dad to help run the sod business. In 1990, their dad sold the business and signed a noncompete agreement.
In 2002 Emory and his wife, Sandy Thomas, started Thomas Turfgrass as a sod installation company.
Emory explained he saw this as a new opportunity for him to work with Sandy, Seth his son and Traci his daughter.
At the time, Seth was in high school and Traci was in college at Baylor University.
Emory knew that running a sod business required a lot of effort and hard work, so he didn’t know if his children would get involved when they graduated.
“I always wanted them to become part of the business, but I wasn’t trying to force them to be part of it. Either way was fine with me, but I’m thankful that they decided to do so,” he said.
When Traci graduated college, she began looking for a job. Thomas Turfgrass had plenty of positions available and she became involved with the wholesale store near San Antonio as their sales associate covering San Antonio and Austin.
Since then, her role has changed and Traci is heavily involved in the company’s marketing, handles their H-2A Visa program and coordinates their health insurance plans.
Seth joined the company when he graduated from Texas A&M. Emory said that he was pleased that both of his children decided to join the family business.
“That’s what makes it fun to me, we have our differences from time to time, but we seem to be able to iron those out and it works really well. Basically, I’m living the dream,” he said.
Both Traci and Seth have three children each. Emory said that he and Sandy love their six grandchildren, consisting of four boys and two girls. Their families live on farms in Bastrop and Austin counties, making it only an hour’s drive in either direction to visit.
Over the years, one of the greatest differences Emory has observed in the sod industry is mechanization. He recalls harvesting in high school when they used a sod cutter they would walk behind. They would push the rolls of sod up by hand and stack them onto trailers. He even remembers when they finally bought a forklift to stack pallets of sod. Emory said he is appreciative of these mechanical changes over time.
Emory also complimented computer software that has made their bookkeeping systems much more efficient and faster.
“We also have better chemicals and safer chemicals than they did back in the 1970s and that’s very important,” he said.
He estimates 90% of the grass Thomas Turfgrass produces is grown on sand-based soil which is what sports field architects specify for projects.
He explains the reason for this is because water can percolate through the sod quickly after heavy rain so athletes can resume play rapidly if the field is designed properly.
Thomas Turfgrass produces, installs and maintains sod products. With seven installation crews, Emory said this responsibility just went along naturally as a part of their sod business.
“Most of our competitors do not install grass at all. It’s a real benefit for us and brings a lot more business our way. We think our crews do a better job of installing than anybody else does anyway, so we highly encourage that,” he said.
Thomas Turfgrass has completed several high-profile sod installations and many small projects. Emory said no matter the size of the project, their goals are to make sure their customers are happy and that they resolve any issues quickly.
Last year, Thomas Turfgrass’s Celebration® Bermudagrass was installed at LSU’s Tiger Stadium. Emory said this was a high-profile project that they enjoyed completing. He joked it would have been a lot better if they’d repeated their national football championship and is hopeful it will happen next season.
Thomas Turfgrass also installed its Latitude 36® Bermudagrass at Texas A&M’s Kyle Field. Emory said since they had a good season this past year, they were really proud to see their grass played on at this stadium.
A few years ago, Thomas Turfgrass produced and installed the grass for the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. They also furnished and installed Latitude 36 at the Amarillo Sod Poodles minor league baseball field and the BBVA Compass Stadium professional soccer arena in Houston, TX.
Emory said there are more listed on their website, but these are some notable jobs they have completed.
Thomas Turfgrass is a sod farm that aspires to be a part of its community. The business has donated several athletic fields near the farm.
“We donated entire fields and we installed the grass for both private and public schools. We’ve done a lot of repair work for baseball and athletic fields for little leagues, schools and town leagues that don’t need a full replacement, but infield and portions of the field replaced,” Emory shared.
Thomas Turfgrass also provides partial scholarships to people who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to go to college.
“We look for people that we can actually help in the community and that always comes back to help us in the long run,” Emory said.
Over the past year, Thomas Turfgrass has taken precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep everyone healthy. Emory explained they have five bunkhouses for their H-2A visa employees. He said between these houses and their installation crews traveling to and from sites, they are trying to keep everyone safe.
“It’s pretty alarming and kind of scary but we just have to keep moving forward and do the best we can,” Emory said.
The business has purchased disinfectants, hand sanitizers and Emory said for the most part the employees have done a good job of keeping things clean. He said that some people have started working from home and will continue to do that until risks are reduced.
Thomas Turfgrass has not had as many athletic field installations during the pandemic. This year, they have started to see things steadily pick back up.
Emory said the future of Thomas Turfgrass is dependent on the political climate. “I’ll be a little boastful about our state. We’re very fortunate to live in Texas,” he said.
Emory said they plan for Thomas Turfgrass to double in size within the next 10 years. He explains they are happy at the size they are at right now but will continue to grow at a steady pace while improving what they have.
“We always give God the credit for everything that we’ve done. He’s the reason. He’s given us the ability and the wherewithal to do it. God has blessed us with a great team and of course a family operation and I am very happy with that and very thankful,” he concluded.
This article was written by Cecilia Brown.