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 Fields of Green. Story by Wright Thompson.

 

In the middle of an immaculately groomed infield, surrounded by the MU Turfgrass Research Center that he directs, Brad Fresenburg's contentment seems complete. Here he's at home, breathing in the air, surveying the grass growing out to the horizon in every direction. It's not just any grass. It's his grass. The grass he dreamed about as a boy in south St. Louis, carefully mowing the thin strip of green between the sidewalk and the curb outside his parents' bakery. The grass he envisioned while romping through the brush at his grandparents' place on the river near Morse Mill, Mo. Those Sunday afternoons were glorious. When they ended, always too soon, and the grass turned back into concrete, he'd dream.

Geese circle overhead, making slow, sweeping turns. A late winter wind is blowing across a half-frozen pond down the hill. Fresenburg, a stocky man, is dressed in khakis, shirtsleeves and a Mizzou jacket. He stands near the mound of his regulation-sized infield, the only one like it in the country. His white beard wards off the chill.

"I was a city boy," Fresenburg says. "I wanted to get out of the city."

Watching him describe the Kentucky Bluegrass and the tall fescue and the research he's directing, seeing him outside, it's suddenly very clear why Fresenburg cares so much about the debate raging in his industry today.

These are hard times for anything natural, as the synthetic steadily gains ground on the real. The world of sports turf is no exception.

Wowed by promises of lower costs, professional teams, colleges and even high schools are flocking to FieldTurf, or one of its 30 cousins, just as they were bowled over by AstroTurf 40 years ago. Many have decided it's better than grass: Almost 20 percent of the nation's high schools and recreation departments have made the switch.

The marketing pitch is impressive. Put in FieldTurf and forget about all the work that comes with grass. At universities around the country, athletic directors often point to three reasons they prefer to use it outdoors, particularly on football fields: You don't need to water it, there is no mud, and it's easy to maintain.

The synthetic companies have done cost studies -- which some agronomists dispute -- that put the "cost per hour of use" at a fourth of that needed to maintain natural grass. The FieldTurf website, for example, claims a $300,000 savings over a 10-year-period. The sports world is listening. "I'm so impressed with FieldTurf that I'm even putting it in my backyard!" former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar gushes. In February, the FieldTurf carpeting Detroit's Ford Field made its debut appearance in a Super Bowl.

In the face of this onslaught, turf experts are swinging back, taking issue with the cost-effectiveness of synthetic fields, pointing out the deficiencies. Fake grass doesn't cool itself, which can be dangerous for athletes. It wears, as any man-made thing does. It doesn't have microbes to break down bacteria.

From his office, located in an old farm house that is now part of the Turfgrass Research Center, Fresenburg is helping lead this push-back. When he's not trumpeting natural grass, he's working to develop a tougher product, to better market the one they already have, to educate the next generation of groundskeepers. "It's an outdoor class," he says. "It's really a dream for me to be working outdoors like I do. I guess that's why I enjoy my job so much."

       
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Published by the Office of Research.

©2006 Curators of the University of Missouri. Click here to contact the editor.