What has been happening in the turf supply sector
For much of the 2000s there was healthy demand for turf for a number of reasons:
- the buoyant housing market until the second half of the decade, with lots of housing transactions, many new properties being built and the value of existing homes increasing substantially
- gardening becoming one of the most popular leisure activities, boosted by widespread coverage on TV and radio, in magazines and newspapers
- people wanting 'instant results' in their gardens and prefering to lay turf rather than sow seed
- increased interest in the outdoor environment and in landscape design prompting many businesses and organisations to improve their public areas
However the economic downturn and housing market slump at the end of the 2000s affected demand for turf suppliers and intensified competition. Matters were made worse for turf growers in parts of the country that suffered from two dry winters in a row and the imposition of hosepipe bans during the early part of 2012. Although the Temporary Use Bans put in place by the water companies were lifted later in the year, many turf growers saw sales plummeting. Many householders paved over their lawns, not only because of the watering restrictions but also to create hard standing for their cars and to cut down on work in the garden. This trend also reduced demand for turf growers.
The economy and the housing market picked up in 2013 and growth was sustained through 2014 and the first half of 2015 and the turf sector benefitted from greater demand. The recovery faltered and as a result of the increased economic uncertainty following the Brexit vote in June 2016, consumer confidence in the economy fell and the housing market became sluggish. The economy and the housing market continued to perform poorly throughout 2017 and into 2018 as household budgets came under strain due to inflation and limited real growth in wages putting pressure on consumers' disposable income. Consumers have tightened their belts and have shown a tendency to spend on experiences and entertainment rather than on big ticket items so the sector has come under some pressure once again. Little change is expected in 2018 and 2019.
The economic downturn of the late 2000s/early 2010s also saw sports and leisure club membership levels come under pressure, particularly those like golf which typically have high fees and associated equipment costs. Many clubs reduced their costs wherever possible, including expenditure on turf. Even when the economy picked up between 2013 and 2015, however, the popularity of golf continued to fall and sports clubs generally faced problems due to a decline in the appeal of many sporting activities, particularly due to the increasing popularity of computer games amongst children and teenagers. Widespread cuts imposed by central government have also reduced demand from local authorities.
The EU ban on the use of three key neonicotinoid insecticides to protect honeybees and other pollinators affected turf growers. These insecticides were spread in granules to kill insects that live in the soil and eat the roots of the grass. Recent updates to the rules covering the sustainable use of pesticides, the protection of lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater, and the machinery used for applying pesticides have also presented challenges for the industry.
Growth of interest in artificial turf
A good deal of research has gone into developing new varieties and mixes of seeds that can tolerate shade and disease and that are hard wearing if used in a sports application. You should be aware, however, that in some sporting activities there has been a move towards using artificial turf. For example, many football clubs use artificial training surfaces, horseracing uses a mixture of turf and all-weather surfaces and artificial turf is widespread in hockey. In 2012 Widnes Vikings became the first rugby league team to host a Super League fixture on artificial turf and some high profile rugby union teams have followed suit. A new online resource was then set up by the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG) to advise on synthetic sports surfaces.
The Sport England website contains guidance on both artificial grass and natural turf surfaces for sporting activities:
- Natural turf for sport design guide
- Artificial sports surfaces
Artificial turf consists of artificial grass 'blades' supported by a thin base layer of sand and by an infill of rubber crumb. The rubber crumb is made from recycled tyres and there is some concern both in the UK and in Holland that the crumb is carcinogenic. Further research is being undertaken but it is possible that the popularity of artificial turf will wane in future.
Although there are very many small turf suppliers you will also face competition from very large concerns that grow turf on over 1,000 acres and who deliver all over the country. Because they operate on such a large scale they can keep their costs down and charge competitive prices. They can also offer a complete installation service which might include obtaining topsoil, putting in irrigation systems and installing huge areas of turf. Customers may prefer to deal with a large firm rather than a small one because they feel confident that a large organisation will supply good quality turf. Some of these firms also supply their turf to authorised distributors, such as garden centres.
You will have to decide whether:
- your business will be able to compete in what has become a competitive sector
- any 'niche' market that you decide to target (such as sports centres) is healthy and is likely to continue to use natural rather than artificial turf
Keeping up to date with developments
Joining a trade association is an excellent way of staying up to date with developments. The Turfgrass Growers Association (TGA) represents the interests of professional turf growers in the UK and Ireland. The TGA has produced the TGA Quality Standards for Cultivated Turf which set out minimum standards for good quality turf used for general landscaping purposes. Vist the TGA website for more information.
Other organisations of interest to the sector include:
- the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI). The STRI is an independent body that carries out research into turfgrass, turfgrass diseases and pests, weeds and mosses.
- the Institute of Groundsmanship (IOG). The IOG supports the use of natural grass in sports. It publishes the Groundsman journal, aimed at the professional sports turf and amenity and landscape management industry
- the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS), Aberystwyth University - undertakes research into commercial turfgrass varieties
- the British Society of Plant Breeders Ltd (BSPB). Represents the interests of plant breeders and seeds suppliers. Produces the annual Guide to using Turfgrass Seed
- the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI)
- the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS)
You can find out more about these organisations on their websites.
You will be able to obtain a lot of useful information if you go to a trade show for the turf supply sector, such as the IOG SALTEX Sports, Amenities and Landscaping Trade Exhibition or the TGA Turf Show. Information about forthcoming trade shows can also be found on the exhibitions website.