Grass is more than just grass at SUNY Cobleskill.
Lush, green, thick, cropped turf, the kind that brings a broad smile to
a golfer’s face as she steps onto a manicured putting green to line up her shot. Turf that is sheer perfection, containing the right mix of grasses, chemicals and care to make it look like a carpet of green.
That’s the passion that UUPers Zhongchun “ZJ” Jiang and Alex Ellram share with the students they teach in Cobleskill’s new Golf Turf Management Program.
Cobleskill is the only school in New York state offering four-year bachelor of technology degrees in turfgrass management, with majors in golf turf management and sports turf management. Both programs began last spring; 20 students are enrolled in the programs.
The college has built a reputation over the years within the national turfgrass industry with its two-year plant science degree. The new degrees make the programs more identifiable for students and employers, and easier to market to potential students, said Jiang, Cobleskill’s professor of turfgrass management. Golf turf management focuses on the scientific growth, cultivation and maintenance of different specialty grasses for golf course greens, fairways and tees, while sports turf management deals with sports fields and recreation areas.
“There is an industry need for higher-level turf professionals,” he explained. “Every week, we receive internships and job requests for golf course assistant superintendents and foremen. Golf course superintendent is the job (students) want and it takes a number of years to get there.”
“One of America’s fastest growing industries is the green industry, which includes turf management,” added Ellram, an associate professor in Cobleskill’s plant science department who teaches turfgrass management courses. “That includes turf management, landscaping, greenery, athletic fields, golf courses and more.”
The state’s turfgrass industry generated $5.1 billion in 2003, according to a New York State Department of Agriculture survey. The industry employed 43,000 workers who maintained 3.43 million acres of turfgrass — 90 percent of it private lawns and golf courses. There were 860 golf courses with over 101,000 acres of turf, over 18,000 acres of school sports fields, and 350 parks in New York maintaining over 11,000 sports fields and playgrounds.
Students who go on to become golf course superintendents can make upwards of $90,000 a year, depending on where they work, Jiang said. Craig Currier, a graduate of Cobleskill’s two-year plant science curriculum, is director of golf course maintenance at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, Long Island — one of the top 10 golf courses in the U.S.
Several golf management students said they plan to find jobs in New York once they graduate, just another way a SUNY education continues to contribute to the state’s economy long after students leave school with their diplomas. Coble-skill also sends students to work at the Cobleskill Country Club.
The college’s School of Agriculture & Natural Resources — which the turfgrass programs are part of — spends thousands of dollars locally purchasing grains, feed, plants, seeds, equipment and other necessities.
“I like being outdoors and working with my hands,” said sophomore Bill Van Handel, a Cobleskill native whose father owns a hydroseed business. “I’m torn between working at a golf course and starting my own lawn business.” Van Handel said he plans to accept an internship working at a Colorado golf course in the summer.
Mike Imobersteg, a golf turf management major in his second year, said he hopes to work with his uncle at Beth-page State Park after graduation. He and Van Handel were quick to
point out problems and solutions as they surveyed the college’s putting green, which golf turf management students maintain during the school year.
“It’s not just about grass,” said Van Handel, jumping up and down to test the turf’s firmness. “It’s different grasses, the shorter height of the grasses for sure. There’s a lot more to turf than just watering it and keeping it groomed.”
— Michael Lisi