Editor’s notebook: Small state, big learning
Mel Lucas Jr. Don Hearn, William Morton and Stephen Tibbels are regular attendees of the New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation Conference & Show.
Guy Cipriano

Editor’s notebook: Small state, big learning

The New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation Conference & Show continues to flourish through an education-first approach.

March 9, 2020

The biggest city in the smallest state covers 20.6 square miles and serves as the base for five colleges and universities. The cozy ratio suggests enlightenment reigns in Providence, the business, culinary and political hub of Rhode Island.
The city provides the ideal setting for an education-first event. Like students who attend Brown University, Johnson & Wales University, Providence College, Rhode Island College and Rhode Island School of Design, superintendents and other turf managers flock to the city to learn.

The first week of March again attracted 2,000 people to Providence for the 23rd annual New England Regional Turfgrass Foundation Conference & Show. The event has never strayed from its mission: to provide the best possible education for turf managers in New England and beyond. Proceeds from the show fund work performed by New England-based educators and researchers.

Since seven GCSAA chapters, the New England Sports Turf Managers Association and the Massachusetts Association of Lawn Care Professionals combined to form a sizable organization in 1996, NERTF has invested $2.5 million into more than 90 research projects. The Foundation continues to distribute an average of $150,000 per year toward research, according to board of director William Morton. Dollar spot, bees, earthworms, nematodes, turf nutrition and Poa annua encroachment in Kentucky bluegrass will be studied in 2020 using funds raised by the Foundation. Professors and students at UMass, UConn and the University of Rhode Island conduct the research, further illustrating the synergy between the Foundation and the region’s universities.

The show rivals any regional turf event, including the splendid Carolinas GCSA Conference and Show. Neither multiple blizzards nor the Great Recession have slowed the learning. NERTF executive director Gary Sykes and show director David Rosenberg are mainstays who embrace the Foundation’s mission while capably serving superintendents, sports turf managers and professional landscapers from states where greenspace is highly valued and often tightly regulated.  

The outside scene this month contrasted past years, as attendees saw actual turf on their drives or flights into Providence. Heavy snow and deep freezes defined a stretch of show weeks from 2015 to ’19. A few thousand outsiders caught a glimpse of the 2020 event. Providence College played Xavier University in a key Big East basketball game on a Wednesday evening. Fans walked by the Rhode Island Convention Center lobby booths promoting local associations on their trek from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center to downtown parking garages. One jubilant fan following the hometown Friars’ victory over the Musketeers shouted, “You can learn about the grass!” on his postgame walk.

Yes, there’s plenty to learn about the grass. Even New England turf legends such as Mel Lucas Jr. and Don Hearn, a pair of past GCSAA presidents, hovered in conference rooms on the final morning and listened closely to peers Peter Hasak and Paul MacCormack. Hasak is the superintendent/general manager at Tedesco Country Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts; MacCormack holds the same dual role at Fox Meadow Golf Course on Prince Edward Island, Canada. Hasak and MacCormack’s messages proved how the job eventually becomes about much more than grass.

Still, the grass is always a topic in Providence. Doctors led the bulk of the 2020 sessions and seminars. University of California-Riverside’s Dr. James Baird described his research with the recently EPA-registered herbicide PoaCure, the University of Arkansas’ Dr. Mike Richardson explained why earthworms are a friend and foe to golf courses, and Michigan State’s Dr. Thomas Nikolai tried condensing decades of rolling and soil science knowledge into 45 minutes. 

Commerce occurred before, during and after presentations. A two-day trade show filled three of the Rhode Island Convention Center’s four exhibit halls. Incorporating vendors into all aspects of the conference and show, including educational sessions, contributes to the event’s vitality. “We tell exhibitors to please sit in the sessions and learn,” Rosenberg says. “And they appreciate it.”

When the final oysters are shucked and heaping helpings of pasta are digested (Providence boasts a flourishing culinary scene), turf managers return to work energized for the new season. New England supports close to 900 golf facilities, ranging from venerable municipal courses enjoyed by thousands to summer havens for multi-club members.

“This conference ramps you up for the season and gets you in tune with what’s going on out there,” says Stephen Tibbels, who’s entering his 20th season at Acushnet River Valley Golf Course, a public facility between Providence and Cape Cod. “I told our mechanic after listening to Dr. Nikolai talk about rolling – and we’re sharpened and ready to go – that I want to flip the rollers on first. We’re going to start rolling next week before we start mowing. It’s interesting to see how everything ties together.”

Hundreds of Tibbels’ colleagues will take lessons learned in a Providence classroom and apply them to outdoor situations this season. Even better, they left the city without heaping piles of student debt – and they get to keep returning for annual learning.

Guy Cipriano is Golf Course Industry’s editor.