Unexpected Demand Affecting Inventory and Pricing of Turfgrass
After an unexpectedly brisk selling season across the green industry in 2020, warm season turfgrasses may be in shorter supply this spring than in years past. According the 2021 Sod Producers Report, recently published by the University of Georgia (UGA), lower inventories of zoysia, Bermuda and centipede may continue to push up prices, depending on spring sales this year.
Current StatisticsIn the report, UGA Professor and Turfgrass Extension Specialist Clint Waltz points out that only 44% of producers, surveyed by the Georgia Urban Ag. Council, estimate an adequate to excellent inventory of zoysiagrass going into spring. And only 55% estimate at least adequate inventory of Bermudagrass and centipede. “The inventory levels coming into the first part of the year — particularly for Bermudagrass and centipedegrass — are a little worrisome to me,” Waltz said. “We certainly haven’t seen those two species that low before.” While overall inventory is thin heading into spring, some producers are prepared to meet demand. “Our goal is to always have a premium quality product available for our customers,” said NG Turf Vice President of Business Operations Jutt Howard. “During peak demand periods many sod producers are forced to harvest before the sod is fully mature and the sod can fall apart, resulting in more labor and product to do the job. We might not be priced the same as some commercial grade sod in the market this spring but we should have sufficient supply of quality product.”
The Sod Producers Report also indicated anticipated increases of on-the-farm and delivered prices prices of 2% to 8% this spring as compared to 2019. (No survey report was released for 2020 due to an insufficient sample size.) Centipede and zoysia on-the-farm prices will see the biggest increases, up 7.9% and 7.7% respectively, followed by St. Augustine and tall fescue delivered prices, up 7.2% and 7.1% respectively. (See Table 1. on page 2 of the 2021 Sod Producers Report)
“It’s just basic economics,” explains Waltz. “When demand gets high and supply gets low, prices are going to go up.”
But Waltz went on to say that the actual increases could rise beyond the estimated numbers in the report. “Whenever I present the data from this sod survey, I use those prices as the floor. I think prices on Bermudagrass and zoysiagrass are both likely to go higher this spring or early summer, especially if sod sales are strong.”
The upside is that some grass is going to mature and come on the market in mid to late summer, so things may ease.”
The pandemic and resulting shut down in early 2020 led to an unanticipated spike in home improvement projects. People spent more time working, schooling and recreating at home, and a record number of homeowners decided to invest in both indoor and outdoor spaces.
“That’s not inconsistent with previous trends within the green industry,” Waltz explained. “When we’ve seen economic downturns in the past, several studies, especially on the horticultural side, have shown that when people can’t travel to the beach or the mountains on vacations, they will invest back where they are.”
“COVID inadvertently changed people’s way of living, with people transitioning to virtual and remote working,” explained Ken Warlick, president of the Greater Atlanta Homebuilders Association. “They’re spending more time outside, and they’re doing more around the house. Nursery inventories are depleted because everyone is doing weekend projects and finally doing home improvements and additions they’ve been putting off for years just because they never had the time.”
He pointed out that Home Depot reported a 20% increase in earnings in 2020. “Who would’ve thought a company would have an increase like that in a year when a pandemic was shutting everything down? It’s mind boggling.”
In addition to invigorating home improvement, the pandemic has prompted an unexpected increase in home starts and sales, which affects the green industry as well. Demand for housing was already high prior to the COVID outbreak due to low interest rates. “It was just the perfect storm,” Warlick said. “With interest rates so low and people transitioning to virtual and remote working, they’re moving from their city apartments or small homes to larger homes with more amenities.”
Warlick says that many people are also moving out of expensive areas of the country to states like Georgia. “The cost of living is a lot less in Georgia than nationwide, so we’re seeing more and more people moving here because they can get more bang for their buck.” Previously experts had predicted the population of Atlanta would double by the year 2050. “COVID has certainly helped expedite that growth and the demand for housing in Georgia.”
Along with all this housing demand, a shortage in both supplies and labor has resulted a rise in prices. “Costs are alarming,” Warlick said. “That’s the thing I’m most worried about. As we’re having this boom in housing demand, we’re also having external forces of rising lumber prices and supplies across the board, with everything from cabinets and appliances to doorknobs and bath hardware.”
In fact, a February article from the National Homebuilders Association reported that lumber prices had hit an all-time high, up more than 170% in the past 10 months. “And they just came out with a study where the average cost of building a typical home (in the range of $225,000 to $275,000) increased $24,000 from April 2020 to February 2021,” Warlick added.
Recent price increases for turfgrasses seem exceptionally modest in comparison to the extreme cost hikes for lumber and other construction materials.
What to Expect
Some experts predict a slight decline in housing demand nationally due to exorbitant costs during the next two years, but at least in Georgia, the current trend is likely to persist. “All the statistics and market studies show that housing demand is going to continue at the same pace that it’s been for the past 8 to 10 months,” Warlick said.
Since sod is an 11- to 13-month crop from seed to harvest, inventory takes time to replenish, and Waltz expects prices to continue to rise further, especially if sales remain strong.
“I’m an agronomist, not an economist, so this is just a guess based on the 19 or so years I’ve been doing this now,” Waltz said. “I could foresee sod prices going up in the spring and early summer while inventories are thin. As grass matures and comes on the market in mid- to late summer, I could see prices coming down some. Will they come down as far as they went up? Based on past experience, my guess is not.”