Sod helps keep farmer in clover Harford firm thrives for nearly 40 years

October 04, 1992|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

The owner of Harford Sod Co. has never been one to back away from controversy. Winton Osborne wasn't afraid of it in 1955 when he and a friend entered the sod business and again in the mid-1980s when he began developing farm land in Forest Hill.

He considers himself a lucky man, and considering the plight of many of today's farmers, it is easy to understand why, with proposals before the County Council to limit development in rural areas of Harford.

"I've seen this county change a great deal in my lifetime," he said, easing back into a chair on the porch of his Forest Hill home. "When I was a youngster the county was rural and remained that way until the post-war [after 1945] years. Then slowly areas began to be developed."

Although he didn't plan it, Mr. Osborne found himself in the middle of the county's growth. In 1955, after working on the family dairy farm all his life, he and a friend, Earl Mann, decided to go into the sod business.

"Now you've got to understand, it wasn't an easy decision," he explained. "Back then sod men were considered to be crooks and thieves. My parents darn near disowned me."

According to Mr. Osborne, farmers compared sod men to con men -- not to be trusted. Sod men had a reputation for making agreements with farmers to sell their sod and then disappearing when it was time to pay the farmers for the product.

In the 37 years since the two enterprising young men launched what is now known as Harford Sod, the business and county have grown. Mr. Mann left the business after eight years to explore other ventures, but Mr. Osborne continued to expand the operation, which now has three phases.

"Diversification saved this business," said Mr. Osborne, explaining how the company met customer wants and needs.

Sod, at first, was just pasture sod taken from the farm, then trimmed to meet the needs of the customer. Now it is grown in fields used only for sod cultivation.

The second phase of the operation took place in 1961 when seed, mulch and erosion control were added; then, in 1967, the company began offering topsoil.

Reflecting back to the early days, Mr. Osborne, 63, recalled how it was Clay Stambaugh who gave the company its first job. "He had 20 to 25 acres of pasture sod needing to be cut and didn't have time to do it himself," he said. "He let us use his equipment and charged us $200 an acre. We sold the sod to someone in Baltimore for a modest profit."

Profits today are a bit more than modest. "We've done as much a $2.1 million," Mr. Osborne said.

That figure was obtained when company trucks could be seen in various parts of the state delivering their products to contractors who were building houses near the Baltimore Beltway and parts of the interstate system. "One of those contractors, A. V. Williams Co., put us on to numerous other jobs," Mr. Osborne said. "Many of the housing developments along the beltway used our sod. I drive past those places today and recall how exciting it was for us to do those jobs."

At one point he employed 70 workers, but improvements in equipment have allowed him to reduce personnel almost by half. "Our equipment costs run $26,000 to $93,000 per item, but now it takes only three people to do a job that used to take 10," he said.

Standing now, he walked to the edge of the porch and pointed toward the expanse of green surrounding the house. "Until 1985, all of my income was derived from the sod business. Today, half comes from the sod business" and half from selling land for development, he said.

It's the developing that catches the attention of anyone driving past his home. "This is the house I was born in and, as long as I live, none of these 217 acres will ever be used for anything but sod."

Mr. Osborne is aware of the proposed Rural Plan and the concern of fellow farmers, especially those outside the county's development envelope -- that part of the county designated for future growth. He understands why they want to have more say in what happens to their land.

"I've been able to do some things with my land that others haven't," he said. ". . . The land I'm currently developing isn't part of my family's [original] property. I purchased two farms as an investment over 30 years ago. It was a gamble. It's only paying off now," he declared.

Making money off developing is one of the reasons Mr. Osborne has been able to cut back on the amount of time devoted to the sod business. A couple of years ago he set up a three-person management team that runs the operation.

He says he's not in a hurry to retire, although he likes the freedom he and his wife, the former Rosella Hughes, have to travel. "I'll stay active as long as my health holds up."

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