Turfgrass Tigers

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A student-focused program at a Virginia school provides labor hope for an industry seeking an infusion of young talent.

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October 30, 2019

Drew Miller leads the turfgrass management program at Brentsville District High School in Prince William County, Virginia.
© christine halsey

It’s significant that a steely-eyed tiger peeking through the grass is the beloved logo of the Brentsville High School Turf Program. These teens are hungry to try it all and their ebullient leader, Drew Miller, is engaging support at every level to provide opportunities and expand the narrative of an industry-wide dilemma – how to attract skilled labor.

Turf students are mowing greens at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, working on community fields, donating landscaping services for veterans, and tackling the daily weather and equipment challenges that come with a career in turf maintenance. Many of them have their hearts set on becoming golf course superintendents. Talking about turf careers and applying to the nation’s top turf programs are part of the everyday chatter at Brentsville District High School.

BDHS is in a developing rural area of Virginia and it is part of Prince William County Public Schools, a district with 12 high schools. In 2016, Katherine Meints, principal of BDHS, and some other PWCS leaders were exploring ways to renew the agricultural vocational program to meet industry needs. The discussion pointed to turf management. “However, we needed to find the right leader,” Meints says.

The district interviewed several people. Nobody was a good fit. “Then, in walks Drew,” Meints recalls with satisfaction. After doing seasonal work during his undergraduate years for the New York Mets, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miller’s hiring journey can only be described as serendipitous. The combined efforts of PWCS, Meints and Miller are creating a program that is both productive and popular.

There are approximately 1,000 students at BDHS and 200 of them are now enrolled in the turf program. Forty percent of the turf students are female, and the total number of turf students has more than doubled in just three years. “Miller and the turf kids are so welcoming that even students not involved in the program want to help with extra projects, just to be a part of it,” Meints says.

“We have two teachers for the program and we would happily find a third if there was more classroom space,” she adds. “There is literally nowhere in the building for them to go.” Despite the increasingly limited indoor space, Miller – who made time to get his masters in career and technical education (agriculture) in 2017 from Virginia Tech while teaching – has been finding ways to get things done from Day One.

© john miller

Launching the program

On a Sunday in May 2016, Miller graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in turf management. On Tuesday, he started at BDHS. With big ideas, he insisted on having the equipment he needed to teach the kids in the strongest way possible.

“When I took the job, I told the administrators it was going to be hands-on,” Miller says. “The kids will learn that I trust them. They will know that I expect them, without any hand-holding, to get on the mower and make sure that they have mowed every blade of grass.”

With the blessing of and some financing from the athletic director, Miller was charged with taking care of the school fields, which have Bermudagrass, and he was determined that the kids would be doing the work. And he wants more work to do – he envisions the students designing and maintaining a five-hole par-3 course on the school grounds.

The department started with a John Deere 2653B Triplex Mower and a Toro Triplex 2500 Sidewinder before adding three Echo Weed Trimmers, a pair of edgers, a paint machine and drafting tables for winter landscaping classes. “We are building as we go,” Miller says.

Budget is always an issue, but the county’s Career and Technical Education Department initially helped with the funding. All the equipment acquired is commercial grade. Miller wants students working on the same standard of equipment industry professionals utilize.

The tactile nature of the program and comfort with professional equipment has proved essential, as the students have been well-prepared for their summer work with five area golf courses: Stonewall Golf Club, Prince William Golf Course, Broad Run Golf & Practice Facility, Bristow Manor Golf Club and RTJ. The students have also worked at Audi Field — home pitch of MLS’s D.C. United — George Mason University, local nurseries and with Game Day Inc., where some students helped with a dormant sprigging trial.

Freshman year is for Horticulture, sophomores take Turf Management 1 (planning for and working on the athletic fields), juniors take Landscape 1 (including more in-depth instruction on the machines), and seniors can choose Landscape 2 or Turf Management 2. With so many students working for golf courses in the summer and aspiring to be superintendents, Turf Management 2 may soon incorporate maintaining greens.

© john miller

For Turf Management 1, there is a safety unit in the beginning of the year and a written test that requires a 90 percent pass rate before the students can use the equipment. “Safety is the first thing we cover,” Miller says. “Everyone has to understand that safety is a priority.”

Once the written test is completed, students must pass a driving test on the mower before they can help maintain fields. They then spend the first quarter taking care of the football field, completing tasks such as painting, mowing, watering and filling divots.

The program emphasizes problem solving. For example, last year was wet and this year has been dry. When the water pump broke, students asked, “What do we do?” They thought of solutions and went to work.

“Someone came up with bucket brigade, so we were doing that,” Miller says. “Someone suggested filling the tractor bucket up and dumping the water where it was most dry – we did that – and we had two hoses out and connected at the spigot to hand-water the football field for three days straight. We couldn’t get the pump parts for two days. Students learned you just have to find a way forward.”

“Seeing the kids work together was awesome,” adds Miller, who enforces the importance of working as a crew. That mentality results in the students receiving a group grade near the end of the first quarter. “This is not an industry of one, it’s a crew,” he says. “It’s a grounds crew, not a grounds member. I can alter the grade based on whether an individual was working or not. The big thing is that they are actually seeing themselves being critiqued on ‘how’ they did, not ‘what’ they did. I want them to be concerned with the process of it.”

Students learn a variety of turfgrass maintenance skills by preparing Donald Lambert Field for games.
© john miller

Teaming up with RTJ

Coordinated effort and problem-solving cannot be emphasized enough and the summer work students complete is beneficial for everyone. Students use the season to practice their skills and determine if they might be interested in a future in turf, expanding their knowledge and bringing it back to BDHS. Local courses and businesses benefit from receiving skilled labor.

“I can’t take them all, but I would if I could,” RTJ superintendent Scott Furlong says. Furlong knows how pivotal seasonal work can be. He was initially destined to be a teacher, earning his bachelor’s degree in education from Old Dominion University. Before he started teaching fulltime, Furlong worked a summer at RTJ in 1994 when the club hosted the Presidents Cup.

“I have been at RTJ ever since,” Furlong says. “The vistas are breathtaking. This is a great place, with a great membership. It is very easy to get up and go to work every day – it never gets old.” Maybe that’s why Furlong understands why so many students feel compelled to work in the turf industry – it’s an attractive occupation, and the more you learn, it seems the more there is to know.

For instance, Furlong says, “the (Annual Bluegrass) Weevil problem across the Mid-Atlantic is something we have struggled with the last few years, and next summer I want our Syngenta rep (Sam Camuso) to meet with the high school and college interns for a 90-minute session so they start to understand one of the biggest pests to hit our industry. They have an eagerness to learn and it’s our job to expose them.”

Furlong and Miller are arranging a classroom visit later this year. Furlong will talk to students about college. “They don’t need to rush into school or a four-year degree,” Furlong says. “The two-year degree might be more manageable for some kids. There is a shortage of students, a shortage of assistants and a shortage of interns across the country. We have a nice little pocket here to work with these kids, talk about placement and see where they can get a good experience.”

“RTJ has great internship programs – high school and college.” Furlong adds. “The college intern program includes working a tournament, attending an association meeting, and scholarship opportunities. All college interns spray, fertilize, calibrate, moisture manage, scout for disease, roll greens and do course set up – all the big stuff. The high school interns start with raking bunkers and pulling weeds, but our goal is to have every one of these kids trained on greens mowing before the end of the summer. If they go somewhere else, they are leaving more talented than when they arrived – there is a progression. If they come back next year, we get them trained in hand-watering and riding jobs.”

Riding jobs at RTJ are scarce, because the course requires a lot of walk mowing and hand work. The crew uses Toro walk and push mowers, and John Deere fairway units, which they try to get students on before college. “Many of the kids from BDHS have been very interested and worked very hard,” Furlong says. “Are they perfect? No. Are they close? Sometimes. They are kids and I expect them to be kids.” The mentality is encouraging to students. No matter how hard a young person tries, mistakes will be made. “It’s frustrating that we don’t have more college interns walking through the door because we truly do try to push people here,” Furlong adds.

Burnout is another industry problem. Workers sometimes don’t feel challenged as they sit in line and wait for a promotion. A recent RTJ recruiting advertisement reads, “Goals of becoming a superintendent within 2-4 years are a prerequisite.” Furlong is serious about advancing careers – from summer workers to top employees.

Principal Katherine Meints and Drew Miller have collaborated to develop a productive and popular turf program at Brentsville District High School.
© christine halsey

“I don’t want people to get complacent,” he says. “I want people who want to come in here and not be good but be great, make RTJ better for being here and then move on. Lots of assistants leave to become superintendents. It makes me happy to see them go out, be productive people in society, in their community, and wear their logo and be respected at their club.”

Furlong says that, in 2018, “we couldn’t find local, seasonal labor from April to November. I contacted landscape companies (who were having the same problem) and used people who had never worked on a golf course just to rake bunkers on tournament days. It was really, really difficult. Then a couple of high schoolers wanted summer jobs and I told them to get their friends because I need staff.” Then he “hired 20-some high school kids. And 17 of them [he] had coached – football, soccer, basketball or lacrosse, and some of them [he] had coached multiple years.” Through personal effort, by working with colleges and teaming up with the BDHS turf program, RTJ is finding the workers it needs. Furlong might have left a career in teaching, but he’s now teaching every day.

Working for the future

Regular communication with students is a major part of Miller’s philosophy. “If you give a kid five minutes of your time, see what he or she is thinking, and really talk about what’s possible – that’s a difference maker,” he says. The approach empowers students, expanding their passion for turf and the program.

“This program wouldn’t be where it is today without the kids who were in my cabinet last year,” Miller says. “Our president, Cole Couch, literally did everything that was needed. Bronco Deeds is the president this year. They understand the importance of what they are doing and the impact they are making not just in the program but everywhere they are going. They have the mindset that ‘this is what I want to do’, and the more I learn now the easier it will be.”

Deeds worked at RTJ. “I want to be a superintendent,” he says. “I enjoyed it and it gave me a good view of the future. I understand what it will be like to work on a course and the responsibilities.” He is applying to Virginia Tech and a few other schools to see what his options are.

“We actually do a lot of community work and work on the school fields,” he says. “Students compliment our designs and everyone seems interested. People respect what we do and understand that the field takes a lot of work to maintain to be ready for game day.” His favorite thing about the turf management program is “being able to learn and getting the experience I need to be able to have a job in this industry. The hardest thing is having everything ready on time.”

John Carayiannis started working at RTJ as a sophomore and transferred into the turf program during his junior year, because he “kept hearing how fun that program was.” He says, “there is a good balance between fun and learning new things. What I like most is being able to make the connections between my job at RTJ and the program because it’s two different types of turf management, but you can see what they have in common.”

Carayiannis has “learned a ton in these two years – for me to catch up and know as much or more than a lot of the people in the program is cool because I got so much experience in such little time. I worked in the bunkers and mowed the greens about half the time this summer. When the afternoon jobs were done, an assistant would take me out to go cut cups or plug out scalped cups.” Carayiannis also hopes to become a superintendent. He plans to obtain more work experience and study turf in college.

Another top student in the program is Julie Kessler. She participates in equestrian activities and works at the barn where she rides. The enthusiasm surrounding the Brentsville program convinced her to give turf a try. “When Mr. Miller started teaching, everyone really seemed to enjoy it, like getting the tape on the football field and designing and working on all of the athletic fields at the school,” she says. “He has been talking to me about how turf management could be a career.”

She plans on applying to college with turf management being an option. “It’s nice that Mr. Miller doesn’t really teach us like children – he teaches us like we are all part of a crew – everyone is equal to him,” she adds. “Sometimes adults talk to us like we’re kids, because we are, but Mr. Miller treats us all with respect. I mean the things he lets us do … he trusts us! It’s pretty great.”

Miller is also proud of Collin Brady, treasurer for the turf program and also an intern at RTJ for the past two summers. Brady runs his own landscaping company – “to put in new beds, mow, mulch and weed.”

He spent his first year at RTJ mulching, raking and weeding. “But as they trusted me more, I was mowing greens and the rough around the edges and stuff like that, cutting holes – it was a lot of fun,” he adds.

Brady eagerly anticipates getting into turf management. “The thing I enjoy most is being outside and learning new things all the time,” he says. “I learn something new every day and I am having fun while I’m doing it. That’s really cool to know that you are putting all this effort into one of the best sports fields in the nation and you helped make that happen. Mr. Miller is one of the best teachers. He doesn’t get mad. He just tells you how to correct mistakes and then he tells you that you did a good job. Sometimes I think, ‘I don’t want to go to school today and then I’m like, I’ve got Landscaping Class.’ It makes me want to keep coming back and keep learning. It’s awesome.”

To have a draw that powerful, to keep kids coming to school and be excited about learning as they are exposed to the great careers that are possible in the turf industry, is a wonderful thing. And students aren’t the only ones better off, because college programs are noticing their talent, and the local community is benefiting too.

Robert Trent Jones Golf Club superintendent Scott Furlong has worked closely with numerous Brentsville District High School students, including John Carayiannis.
© photos courtesy of Scott Furlong

Involving colleges and the community

Students in the turf program make an annual visit to Virginia Tech. They have visited Penn State. And this year, sophomores will also be visiting the University of Maryland.

“Every year when we go there are a couple of kids who don’t really think a four-year university is the place for them,” Meints says. “By halfway through the day, they are asking me, ‘What would I need to do to get into the two-year program at Virginia Tech? How can I finish out my junior/senior year to get in here?’”

Miller remembers Virginia Tech’s Dr. Mike Goatley teaching him that you are creating more than just a field. Working in turf management, you are creating a place for memories for kids, a safe playing environment for athletes and something pleasing for spectators to observe. Turf is never just turf. It has a larger purpose, for sports and the environment, and that’s critical.

Fortunately, support is pouring in from every direction. The Prince William branch of the Farm Bureau Insurance Company donated $20,000. This enabled the turf program to acquire a pair of mowers. The students maintain some of the community fields and they also work field jobs at other schools, such as baseball mound reconstruction or field edging. Sometimes they work for service hours, sometimes for pay. Any money made on these jobs is reinvested in the program.

© photos courtesy of Scott Furlong

The county is helping fund a new greenhouse at BDHS that will mainly be used for the horticulture class, but ideally also for cultivating grasses for turf identification. Virginia Tech and Penn State have sent letters supporting a grant, which Miller has applied for so that BDHS can build the first high school turfgrass research center in the United States. It will include a research lab, research putting green, maintenance facility, storage area and an area to house classes. The idea is that BDHS can help conduct research trials for both of those colleges – and much more.

“There will be a workshop area so that the students can work on the engines, and a welding station … everything we need to teach the kids how to maintain equipment,” Miller says. “Sports turf managers usually ship maintenance equipment out to be repaired, but that’s less common for golf course managers. I want the kids to have a better understanding of the equipment so that when they are out there on the course, they know what is going wrong.”

The new facility could allow the program to grow even more, solving the classroom issue. Partnerships with the community, universities, administrators and courses like RTJ are providing students with the skills they need. The influential approach of Furlong and Miller, to continually teach and show the students new things, is keeping their interest and helping solve the problem of bringing skilled labor to the industry.

Brentsville students are learning how to work together and that quality turf skills provide career opportunities. Though they have just started peeking through the grass, the students are thriving with a steely, tiger-like determination to make the most of what they see.

Lee Carr is an Ohio-based writer and frequent GCI contributor.