Grass for Derek Jeter to play on.

The Kentucky bluegrass at the East Coast Sod & Seed farm is kept to one inch. The farm shipped sod to Yankee Stadium in January, so it will be ready for the team's April 1 home opener.
The Kentucky bluegrass at the East Coast Sod & Seed farm is kept to one inch. The farm shipped sod to Yankee Stadium in January, so it will be ready for the team's April 1 home opener. (AL LUBRANO / Staff)

In 'Down Jersey,' a field of dreams is grown

Posted: March 25, 2013

Both the infield and outfield of Yankee Stadium are growing on 1,000 acres of green farmland alongside Route 40 in Pilesgrove, Salem County.

Drive past and watch the sky widen in the windshield as the pool-table-flat land stretches, with un-Jerseylike drama, toward the horizon.

The farm's crop of inch-high Kentucky bluegrass is ultimately cut into 4-by-70-foot rolls of sod and shipped to what is arguably the premier address of Major League Baseball - known to some as the sport's home office.

There, it will be stomped and traipsed on by the likes of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and other cleated millionaires.

The farm, East Coast Sod & Seed, is the field from which the field of dreams comes.

It's been providing sod for the Yankees since 2000, which means three of the last 12 World Series - held in both the old and new Yankee Stadiums - were played on Salem County grass, including the Yankees-Phillies tilt in 2009.

In January, East Coast sent 100,000 square feet of sod - two acres, worth $50,000 - to Yankee Stadium for the 2013 season, which starts April 1.

The Yankees aren't the only A-list client for East Coast, a niche farm with specialized clientele.

The farm sends sod to the Pine Valley Golf Club in Camden County, rated the No. 1 golf course in America in 2013 by Golf Magazine.

It also trucks its product to the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, sixth-best in the United States and the site in June this year of the U.S. Open. There's a legendary top-five golf course in the South that East Coast also serves, but can't - for delicate business reasons - reveal in the media.

But it's the ballpark in the Bronx that inflates pride among the employees at East Coast - as many as 50 workers during busy points in the growing season. Farm trucks bear the Yankees logo and the words Official Sod Grower.

"We send grass to baseball's biggest venue," said David Giordano, East Coast's farm manager. He adds with a grin, "People around here don't want to hear that."

If Cherry Hill is in South Jersey, and Pilesgrove is 45 minutes south of that, just where does Yankee grass grow?

Some locals call this modest patch of rurality 14 miles east of Wilmington "Down Jersey," a term for a place apart.

Giordano, 39, grew up a few miles north in Gloucester Township. "It's like the South down here," said Giordano, who has an associate degree in agronomy science from the University of Massachusetts. "I don't fit in too well. I'm from Exit 3 of the New Jersey Turnpike, but they consider me a Northerner."

The country vibe persists in Pilesgrove thick as sausage gravy.

A half-mile east of the farm along Route 40 is the Cowtown Rodeo, billed as America's longest continuously run weekly rodeo. Near that is a clothing store specializing in cowboy hats and boots, which isn't far from the county fairgrounds where, each August, teenagers present prized pigs and other livestock they've raised as their parents snack on funnel cakes and peruse vintage tractors.

Adjacent to Cowtown is a ramshackle but beloved flea market whose owners' ancestors sold beef on the hoof to Gen. George Washington in Valley Forge in 1778, according to locals.

How did the Steinbrenner family, owners of the Yankees, come to do business way down here, 115 miles south of their Bronx jewel box?

East Coast is owned by DeLea Sod Farms on Long Island. DeLea has provided sod to the Yankees for decades, principal owner Rick DeLea said.

He isn't a sports fan. "But I live and breathe grass," DeLea, 49, said. He discovered that the sandy soil of South-South Jersey was perfect for baseball stadiums, which have sand at their base. He bought East Coast in 2000.

The sand-on-sand combination makes for better drainage. When sod is cut, the resulting one-ton roll includes the grass and a layer of sand that is laid across stadium sand like a carpet.

"The sand materials match," said Dan Cunningham, head groundskeeper at Yankee Stadium. "And Rick gets grass varieties that are disease- and pest-resistant. They play well with us."

Frank Rossi, a professor of turf-grass science at Cornell University, concurs. He was the lead turf consultant the Yankees used to find their sod.

"East Coast delivers a high-quality product," he said. "The Yankees are getting good grass."

A gruff New Yorker, DeLea has grown fond of the laid-back zeitgeist of Pilesgrove and nearby Woodstown. He makes sure Giordano maintains the 19th-century cemetery that's on East Coast property not far from the pair of nesting American bald eagles living in a farm tree.

"I call Woodstown Mayberry," DeLea said. "It's an old-time mentality, the way things were. It's nice down there."

Forty farms produced sod in New Jersey on 9,425 acres in 2007, according to the latest available information from the state Department of Agriculture. Annual sales were $38.1 million.

One of Jersey's sod stars is Tuckahoe Turf Farms in Hammonton, Atlantic County. The prolific growers provide stadium grass for the Eagles, as well as the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and Boston Red Sox.

Like East Coast, Tuckahoe is blessed to be on the sandy soil professional teams love. Grass is venerated, artificial turf detested at Tuckahoe.

"I wouldn't want my kid playing on artificial turf," said James Betts, one of the farm partners. Grass is safer, said Betts, who likes seeing grass stains on uniforms.

With all this glorious grass close by, the Phillies nevertheless use Maryland sod.

In keeping with their contrary stance, they also go with Bermuda grass as opposed to the Kentucky bluegrass the Yankees and most Northern teams use. A Southern grass, Bermuda survives deep summer better than bluegrass, but falters in spring and fall, Rossi of Cornell said.

Mike Boekholder, head groundskeeper at Citizens Bank Park, said he switched to Bermuda because he believes it provides a quicker, truer surface for the baseball.

And Bermuda is considered tougher and stands up to rock concerts and other events, said Tony Leonard, director of grounds at Lincoln Financial Field, also carpeted in Bermuda grass.

Such use can tear up well-maintained grass, Rossi said. "The biggest challenge facing stadiums isn't baseball or football," he said. "It's Pink Floyd."

Of course, a field getting wrecked "is good for business," said Giordano, always ready to resod.

Typically, the Yankees ask for extra patches of sod during the season. And East Coast has fully re-grassed the place six times in the last 13 years.

DeLea loves this year's sod now installed in the Bronx.

"It's eye candy," he said of his fine Jersey harvest. "When the camera's on it, the field will be screaming green."


Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.

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