Off the Record: The history of turfgrass research in the USDA

By |  October 24, 2022 0 Comments

In the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tried eliminating the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) from their Beltsville, Md., laboratory budget. It was only $50K of in-kind support for office and greenhouse space. NTEP asked turfgrass faculty and industry leaders to write letters of support to keep the program alive each year.

At this time, Robert Shearman, Ph.D., NTEP executive director, arranged to have the NTEP Policy Committee visit with the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) program staff. Turfgrass science and management was not a priority within the USDA-ARS since there were no longer ARS scientists who worked on turf.

Shearman led a presentation to justify hiring one turfgrass scientist at Beltsville, and to our surprise, the USDA-ARS program staff suggested the need for more scientists. Hence, a workshop with more than 200 attendees took place in Dallas the following year. University turfgrass faculty, association leaders, industry representatives and USDA-ARS scientists developed the first National Turfgrass Research Initiative (NTRI).

Working with congress

Following the development of the NTRI, the turfgrass industry lobbied Congress to increase funding in the Farm Bill for USDA-ARS scientists. There were big plans to eventually provide $32 million in research for the turfgrass industry. Unfortunately, a series of national disasters derailed the growth of NTRI. First, 9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and then Hurricane Katrina slowed the new federal funding.

The USDA-ARS did fund a research scientist at Beltsville, technician support in Logan, Utah, and soil research at the Beaver, W.Va., laboratory. Also, support for the warm-season grass breeding program at Tifton, Ga., received some extra funding. During this time, Kevin Morris, NTEP executive director, established the National Turfgrass Federation (NTF) to lobby Congress.

After several years of visiting Congress, the 2008 budget had more than $1.9 million in funds for drought mitigation research in Riverside, Calif., and Maricopa, Ariz., and permanently funded the position in Beltsville, Md., Beaver, W.Va., Logan, Utah, and Tifton, Ga. However, the change of presidential administrations and Congress in November 2008 canceled this funding.

Turfgrass as a specialty crop

A disappointed NTF did not give up on the effort to increase federal funding for turfgrass research. Participating in the USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grant program was a new direction. The SCRI program addresses the needs of the horticulture industry by awarding research and extension grants to universities. The program focuses on national and regional challenges in agriculture sustainability.

The NTF was interested in SCRI funding to address 1) plant breeding, genetics and genomics; 2) threats from pests and diseases and 3) production efficiency, productivity and profitability. At first, SCRI proposal reviewers rejected turfgrass requests because they were not a specialty crop. Fortunately, that changed thanks to Turfgrass Producers International (TPI) getting the rules and regulations changed in the Federal Register to consider turfgrass a specialty crop.

Since then, SCRI has provided more than $25 million through several grants to turfgrass scientists at land-grant universities.

The Turfgrass Summit II, held in October 2020 during the pandemic, refocused research priorities for USDA and universities. The conference summary and presentation videos are available here.

Finally, after years of effort, in the latest Farm Bill, the USDA-ARS received $3 million to fund new scientists and research support. There is now an active turfgrass research culture within the USDA. The new group of scientists will significantly contribute to turfgrass science and management for years to come.

Photo: Mike Kenna, Ph. D.

Photo: Mike Kenna, Ph. D.

Mike Kenna, Ph.D., is the retired director of research, USGA Green Section. Contact him at

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