The History of Turfland Turf Farm
It all began in 1958 when Chris Watmore, then a cowman, married Janet, then a nurse. They bought their first house together in 1962 and Chris went to work for F L White, a turf supplier. Chris quickly became a key person at F L White’s and also became aware of the growth potential of the turf market.
It was 14 years since the end of the Second World War and Harold Macmillan was prime minister. It was a period of low unemployment and high growth. During his speech in July 1957 Macmillan told the nation they had “never had it so good”. Also post war women didn’t want to stay at home, having done there bit holding the country together while the men were at war they wanted to continue to work and contribute to the household income. By the 1960’s 38% of married women worked. A good time for ‘instant lawns’.
Turfland Started Out As Sussex Turf Supplies
The result was that Chris, along with Bill Wright, a colleague, left F L Whites in 1965 and together with his wife Janet set up Sussex Turf Supplies starting with only an 8 acre field. In those early, heady days of establishing their own business Chris and Janet couldn’t help wondering about their first good omen. The very first day that they started cutting turf in their new business their first customer was no other than a Mr Seed!
Hard Work And Innovation Got The Company Off The Ground
The work was a lot harder than it is today as they had to hand race every yard of turf and the Ryan turf cutters in those days were very complicated and difficult to use. They had to fold and stack every piece of turf by hand. Getting the turf from the field to the lorry was no easier. The 8 acre field was in a small valley at the end of a long track. They used an old Fordson Major tractor and made a buckboard out of old timbers. The turf was stacked onto this and had to be reversed out uphill to where the lorry was parked. All the time there were orders the work never stopped. Time off was taken when bad weather slowed or stopped production.
The Importance of Being Competitive
Right from the start, Chris and Janet realised the importance of producing a better product than their competitors which, with customer service, was one of the factors which became key to their success and which they still consider of prime importance throughout the business. Subsequently they bought out Bill Wright, expanded the business and started a series of firsts in the UK turf industry. They became:-
- THE FIRST COMPANY TO WEED TREAT TURF – in those days their competitors did not weed treat turf. The best of them had a precarious grading system on the field, i.e. a large dense area of broad leaved weeds may be considered suitable for council verges or a cheap back garden. The price was 45/- for 100 3 foot x 1 foot turves. Another area that had perhaps been closer grazed by sheep would be priced at 50/- per 100 3 foot x 1 foot turves. For the customer this was very much a ‘pot luck’ situation.
- THE FIRST TO INTRODUCE A PROPER MOWING PROGRAMME – Most turf at that time was not gang mowed regularly but grazed by sheep. For closer cropped turf, a few more sheep were added.
- THE FIRST TO USE FERTILISERS – Because Sussex Turf Suppliers did not use sheep to control growth of grass and these also added fertiliser in the form of manure, they became the first to operate a balanced fertiliser application programme. This produced a more consistent grass quality and stronger roots. It also eliminated the terrible damage caused by sheep urine.
The business expanded with the acquisition of Amberstone, a 7 acre field and coal yard near Hailsham in Sussex. Purchased initially to accommodate the trucks and then to develop into a turf depot. In 1969 the business acquired 100 acres of accommodation land at Lapham Drove which was used for harvesting pasture turf and was then re-sown but due to access problems this land was sold for a healthy profit in 1971.
The proceeds were used to develop Amberstone, build a house and purchase some new trucks and by 1974 Sussex Turf Supplies was the leading UK producer of turf. In 1974 another 100 acres of land was purchased at Middlebridge and with the aid of a River Authority Grant the land was drained and it was here that the business FIRST BEGAN TO GROW TURF FROM SEED, no other turf company in the UK at this time had ever sown seed to grow turf making Chris and Janet true pioneers in the UK turf industry. At this stage volume users were still using pasture turf.
Introducing a New Machine To Revolutionise UK Turf Growing
In 1976 another milestone in the company’s history was reached. Chris and Janet received a telephone call from a local farmer who had a 20 acre pasture field for harvesting, but he wanted it lifted and gone in just a few weeks. They knew this would be impossible to do using traditional methods but Chris recalled hearing about a new machine that could harvest up to 1500 square yards in an hour.
On tracing the UK distributor, Chris identified the machine as an A3 Brouwer Harvester, but found the distributor to be so unhelpful and off-putting that Chris telephoned Canada and arranged to fly over to meet the manufacturer, Jerry Brouwer (he called from the airport to let Janet know he was going)!
With a little “Artful” negotiating Chris bought and shipped over his first Brouwer Harvester (the first one in the UK) and as a result completed the harvesting job in time.
A few months later Jerry Brouwer invited Chris back over to Canada where he awarded Sussex Turf Suppliers the sole UK Distributorship for Brouwer turf harvesters and associated equipment. They became the FIRST INTERNATIONAL MEMBERS OF THE AMERICAN SOD PRODUCERS ASSOCIATION (ASPA) NOW KNOW AS THE TPI (TURF PRODUCERS INTERNATIONAL). That year six Brouwer harvesters were sold and the UNITED TURF PRODUCERS ASSOCIATION was formed.
Moving "Up Country" To Cheshire
In 1979 the business made a £500,000 investment in purchasing Redhouse Farm, a 200 acre site at Preston Brook, Cheshire. The business was renamed Turfland. Both the Warrington site and Sussex sites were run together until 1983 when Peter Baxter (a farmer in Kent) bought Turfland in Sussex on the agreement that he would retain use of the Turfland name and receive management assistance in return for an annual fee. This lasted for six years until Peter Baxter went completely independent and changed the name to Grasslands.
Upgrading to Better Soils
Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, Turfland continued to invest and develop its products and services. The nurseries in Cheshire produced excellent quality turf but because it was a heavier Cheshire loam it became very wet in the winter and bone dry in the summer. In 1993 Turfland purchased its first block of grade 1 land at Scarisbrick in Lancashire. Only 2.5% of UK soils achieve grade 1 classification, perfect for producing top quality turf, free draining with virtually unlimited irrigation meant that Turfland could produce healthy turf 12 months of the year. Turfland continued to purchase further blocks of land around Southport as and when they became available (which wasn’t often as this precious land tends to stay in the same hands for generations). Turfland now owned over 1000 acres of grade 1 land around Southport. The head office relocated to Southport in 1999.
By 1996 Chris and Janet were in their mid-fifties and had run the business for 34 years and at the same time raised 5 children. They were ready to take more of a back seat and needed some help. They had tried working with their sons but the boys, like their father before them, were head strong and independent and had set up businesses of their own.
The next phase:
At this time their daughter Angela was married and living in New Zealand with her husband David and two young children. She had originally been involved in the turf business after leaving school in 1982 through to 1990 when she married David and emigrated to NZ. David was from New Zealand and they met when he came to work at Turfland during his O.E. They owned and managed a 2000 acre sheep and beef farm which David had purchased from his parents. At the time when Chris and Janet needed help both their children were pre-school age so Dave and Angela made the decision to lease the farm and return to the UK to help.
During the first few years David spent a lot of time getting hands on and learning all about turf production and the transport side of the business. Angela resumed her role in sales and marketing. In 1999 Chris and Janet handed over the reins and took a back seat although remained available for advice as and when needed.
Under New Management and Going Digital
Angela and Dave very soon got to grips with running the business and introduced new clients one of the largest being B&Q. Following this and having seen the growth of ecommerce they launched turfonline in 2004 which was an immediate success. They offered fresh turf straight from the turf nursery delivered next day nationwide.
During the 2000’s a large surge of South Africans came to the UK, many sought work and the rural farming communities attracted large numbers. In 2007 Turfland employed up to 10 white South Africans on the turf field, great guys, conscientious and hardworking, they were a great team of men. They operated the turf harvesters which needed two men per machine, one to drive and one who stood on a platform on the back to stack the rolls onto a pallet as they came out of the roll up mechanism at the top of the conveyor. At the time we had 6 of these harvesters. On one occasion an altercation with one of the English workers lead to the whole team of South Africans taking exception and walking off the job. Dave decided he wouldn’t be put in this position again and began to investigate the new totally automated harvesting machines. Not only would they speed the job up being capable of harvesting anything up to 2500 square metres an hour they would also reduce labour by 60%.
The business continued to grow with more land being purchased. Between 2000 and 2010 it grew from 500 acres of owned land to almost double the size but with the addition of rented land was in excess of 1000 acres in turf production.
2010 - Along Comes An Important Investor
At the end of 2010 having successfully survived the Great Recession of 2008 to 2010 Turfland was purchased by Harrowden Farms Ltd (a large farming concern owned by a family in Northamptonshire, Stuart and Chantall Ridd Jones). They already owned a large turf farm in Norfolk known as Q Lawns who grew turf on similar soils. They were more than pleased to retain the skills of David and Angela to continue to manage the business for them and soon after put them on the board of directors.
Angela and David Mackay - Directors of Turfland from 2010 until 2016
Harrowden Farms had the benefit of running two successful businesses side by side which highlighted any strengths and weaknesses and these were very quickly compared and ironed out. Turfland had always run a fleet of trucks equipped with ride on forklifts to deliver the turf which gave the business a huge advantage over competitors within the industry who had to rely on outside haulage. Soon after the purchase of Turfland a fleet of trucks was added for the Norfolk farm. At the same time the old manual stacking machines were sold and the same automated harvesters used by Q Lawns were introduced to the Southport farm (Dave got his wish).
In 2013 Harrowden Farms purchased Stewarts Turf business in Edinburgh. Going forward this was then managed by David and Angela and all the turf for the Scottish depot in Edinburgh now gets supplied fresh each day from Lancashire. It is then delivered throughout Scotland.
A New Horizon
Following 20 years of running Turfland David and Angela have made the very difficult decision to return to New Zealand. Their oldest daughter, having completed university in York, now lives in New Zealand, and their oldest son is at London School of Economics with a year to go. Their youngest son has just finished primary school so it was go now or wait until he finished high school.
“We are leaving the business on a high, healthy profits, a fantastic team of people and a great customer base. It’s a bit like an athlete retiring at their peak. We are proud of what we have achieved over the last 20 years and we can see Stuart and Chantall taking the business to new heights. They are forward thinking and passionate about the business and the people involved. We have loved working with them over the last 6 years and we know that the business is going to continue to go from strength to strength with the two of them at the helm. With the combined businesses and the recent acquisition of Spearhead Turf the new business moving forward as Harrowden Turf Ltd has got to be the biggest turf company in Europe. We will miss Turfland but Dave and I are looking forward to new challenges, we have no plans set in stone and look forward to the future and whatever it has in store for us”. Angela Mackay.