Turf ultimately won
Courtesy of Dr. Bryan Unruh

Turf ultimately won

From developing BMPs to fostering children, the University of Florida’s Dr. Bryan Unruh bypassed a law career to plant himself in several close-knit communities.

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June 18, 2021

Dr. Bryan Unruh’s interest in turfgrass first began when he was just a kid mowing lawns in his hometown of Dodge City, Kansas. Now, he is a professor of environmental horticulture at the University of Florida, IFAS, West Florida Research and Education Center in Jay, Florida.

Unruh’s work in the green industry started when he attended a lawnmower safety course taught by the county agriculture agent. A career in turfgrass management was never considered as Unruh finished high school with the intention to become a corporate attorney. After giving thought to the idea of a desk job and seven-and-a-half years to be an attorney, he ended up taking a different route. Instead, Unruh attended school for 10 1/2 years and during that time developed a greater interest in horticulture.

Between his freshman and sophomore year of undergrad at Kansas State University, Unruh worked for one of his friends that owned one of the largest lawn care companies in western Kansas. He did a lot of bidding and estimating work for his friend and helped run a few crews. “Then when I went back to school my sophomore year, I probably was a little too focused on the extracurricular activities,” Unruh says.

During that sophomore year he realized a lot of students were going into golf course management and he didn’t have any experience with golf courses to know if he was even interested. One day, Unruh spoke with the local country club superintendent that lived nearby his parents about a job opportunity.

“The summer before my junior year I worked on the golf course and it really changed my life in the sense that, I’d never rake pine needles underneath a pine tree for $4 again,” he jokes. “That summer I also worked installing residential irrigation systems.”

He went into his junior year at Kansas State heavily focused on academics to get his grade point average up. The Heart of America GCSA gave him a scholarship and he used the funds to go with his advisor to the National Scientific Meeting in Anaheim, California. This is where he was first introduced to the research realm of the turfgrass industry. He became inspired and decided to pursue his master’s from Kansas State University. From there, he went on to Iowa State for his doctorate and then started working at the University of Florida in January 1996. 

Evolving University of Florida role

Unruh considers himself an old-school extension specialist. He was hired initially as 70 percent teaching and 30 percent extension with no formal research appointment (even though he launched the start of building a large research facility). That changed within just one year of being at Florida, due to the changing needs of the turfgrass industry. “I don’t think you can do good extension work sitting in your office,” he says. “You’ve got to be out of the trenches and so I started traveling around Florida.”

After 14 years at Florida, he passed the baton in the teaching program and became fully committed to Florida’s turfgrass research efforts and is now a senior faculty member, which he says sounds better than being called the “old guy at UF.”

“The problems are increasingly complex,” he says. “We, as practitioners, tend to want to simplify things but Earth is an amazingly complex system. I guess probably the last decade of my work has really been trying to parse out the inner workings and relations.”

Unruh adds what started as looking into what fertilizer lasts the longest quickly became a realization of determining the environmental impacts of fertilization. “We’re quick to say grass is good for the environment,” he says. “It has a lot of ecosystem services, a lot of attributes when properly managed and that is the crux of it. We’re dealing with everything from your average homeowner who thinks a little bit is good and a lot of it would be better. All the way to the corporate companies that want to try a one size fits all approach.”

Unruh shares that he loves that no two days are the same in his position. One day he’ll be in a suit and tie in Washington, D.C. speaking to the administrator of the EPA and the next he’ll be in work boots laying sod. “That’s pretty enjoyable,” he says. “I’m a problem solver so you can send me a picture of something but it’s not really the same as digging in and trying to figure out the solution to the challenge.”

Developing BMPs

In 2000, a discussion on restricting fertilizer in Jacksonville led to a conversation with Unruh and a former department chair which led to the development of Best Management Practices for the green industry. In September 2000, they launched the first effort to build the Florida Green Industry BMP for the lawn care side of the business and worked on that until around 2003.

“That’s where it all started. BMPs became required by law,” he says. “So, in order to spread fertilizer in the state of Florida, to the urban landscape, you have to be licensed and in order to be licensed, you have to go through BMP training. Once the lawn care BMPs were complete, the golf side started ramping up. After that came the sod production BMPs.

Unruh’s turfgrass science research and extension program is at the forefront of improving BMPs, understanding and changing consumer preferences and behavior related to landscape management, and testing new and novel grasses that have improved turfgrass performance characteristics and require fewer inputs to maintain them. Results from his team’s work are included in all three Florida turf industry BMP manuals.

Unruh’s team was selected to develop the GCSAA’s National BMP Planning Guide and Template with the end goal of having golf-centric BMP manuals in all 50 states by 2020; a goal that was achieved in December 2020. “We met that goal last year,” he says. “Looking back, I honestly didn’t know if we’d make the goal.”

Unruh explained that was the first phase and phase two will be having a BMP manual developed for every golf course in every state. Essentially individual golf course superintendents can now log into the facility portal and based on their location, will be able to clone their state-level document for their facility to operate with just a few mouse clicks on the computer.

“In the facility tool, superintendents can personalize the content for if there are city or county rules or regulations that need to be incorporated into the BMPs,” he says. “They can put a picture of their signature hole from their golf course onto their cover. The next heavy lift is going to try to get these manuals all over the nation for every facility which will take some time.”

More recently, Unruh is working to revise the Florida manual, which had not been updated since 2012. By the end of July, he hopes to have a glossy version of the manual available.

Honors and leadership positions

Unruh was awarded the 2018 Turfgrass Educator Award of Excellence from Turfgrass Producers International. Betsy McGill, executive director of Turfgrass Producers of Florida, nominated him and several allied golf and sod organizations wrote letters supporting his nomination. “It was pretty cool and it was humbling,” Unruh says.

In 2009, the FTGA gave Unruh their Wreath of Grass Award. “With that one, I was absolutely speechless because it was done in secret. Those awards are just real affirmation that I’m effective. We get really caught up in being busy and busy doesn’t always mean effective.”

In 2020 Unruh was selected as a fellow for both the American Society of Agronomy and the Crop Science Society of America. “That is the highest recognition bestowed by the professional societies,” he says. “That’s my colleagues and my peers recognizing my contributions rather than by groups that I support.”

One of Unruh’s professors from his doctorate program at Iowa State, Dr. Nick Christians, has been nominating him for a few years and his peers would write in letters of support. A panel reviews the nominations and selects worthy colleagues based on their professional achievements and meritorious service. Up to .3 percent of the Society’s active and emeritus members may be elected Fellow.

Unruh is also the immediate past-chair of the Crop Science Society of America C5 Division. The Crop Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America are considered the tri-societies for agronomic research professional organizations. In the Crop Science Society, there are nine different divisions and C5 is the turfgrass science division.

The same research meeting Unruh attended on scholarship in 1988, he attended again in 2019 where he was elected the division chair. In that role, he was responsible for planning and organizing the annual research conference. He was also responsible for getting nearly 70 graduate student papers that were entered into a contest judged prior to the event. The 2020 conference planned for Phoenix ended up being held virtually because of COVID-19. “I was the chair during the pandemic. The year that I was the chair was the same year I received the two fellows, so it was a high watermark,” he says.

Industry observations

Unruh relishes the connections he shares with others involved in the turfgrass industry whether it’s keeping up with each other’s families or projects they’re working on. “We’re a pretty tight-knit group which has its pros and cons,” he says. “We’re kind of all focused on this thing, turf, in collaboration. We are colleagues and we’re friends. And it’s really kind of cool.”

Earlier this spring, Unruh went to a big industry event in Naples, Florida, and turf wasn’t even part of their dinner conversation. While it can be competitive at times, he says for the most part colleagues try to work together and continue to build lasting relationships.

“We’re very collaborative,” he says. “One of the big projects is this multi-state breeding effort which is in its third round of federal funding.” Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, the University of Georgia, the University of Florida, North Carolina State University, and the University of California all have turfgrass researchers working together to develop the next generation of grasses. “I think you’re going to see a lot more stuff come down the line here in the near future,” Unruh adds.

Unruh respects the passion and challenges that sod companies bring to researchers. He says because he doesn’t have a dog in the fight, sometimes he can be at odds with them by being strictly data-based and bound to science. He explains that the Florida Extension team has a long-lasting relationship with Sod Solutions. “I can pick up the phone and call Mark (Kann) and Erin (Wilder) and generally can get the support I need,” he shared.

Foster care and adoption

Unruh and his wife Barbara have been happily married for 30 years. The two met in high school and now have two grown children, Joshua and Jordan, as well as one adopted son, Josiah. He explains Barbara is wired to help people in need and several years ago they formed a not-for-profit called Hope for the Future of Northwest Florida, Inc. The organization helps those who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless, especially single mothers and elderly women.

When they started the organization, Unruh was also serving on the state board for the Florida Baptist Convention, which has a subsidiary called the Florida Baptist Children’s Home. At their board meetings, Unruh would hear about the need for foster parents and group homes. Barbara and Unruh decided that they would go through the training to become foster parents.

Just 45 minutes after receiving their license, their phone rang and the agency asked if they could take a newborn that was at the hospital. Barbara went and brought home a boy weighing 3 pounds and 4 ounces. Unruh said the first few months were scary due to his size but he grew healthy and strong.

“Josiah turned nine years old this month,” Unruh says. “He is crazy smart and athletic. He changed our world and we have changed his world too.” Joshua is married with two children and Jordan just finished her undergraduate degree in education and got married mid-May.

Unruh and Barbara fostered for six years altogether, during which they cared for roughly 22 children from ages newborn to 17 years old. Some stayed less than 24 hours, while others stayed for over a year with their family. Unruh says they always desired for the families to be reunified and strengthened following their care.

His achievements within the turf industry and beyond make him highly regraded by the communities he assists.  

Cecilia Brown is the media and content manager for Sod Solutions.