N.J farmer nurtures dune grass to keep sea at bay Beach towns buy his seedlings to halt erosion caused by spate of recent storms

July 25, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PALERMO, N.J. --- When Phil Dubruille retired from his casino carpentry job seven years ago, he quickly decided how he would spend his time: He'd sit and watch the grass grow.

Dune grass, that is. Somebody's got to grow the stuff ` it doesn't just sprout up on its own.

Somebody's got to take little dune-grass seedlings and put them in sandy ground, and water and fertilize them for a whole year.

Somebody's got to yank up the weeds that choke them. And somebody's got to furnish the fully grown stalks to shore towns, which put the tall, slinky grass on the beaches to keep the sand dunes from eroding.

Not many people have been willing to take on such a job. In fact, in the entire country, there are only 20 official growers of the kind of dune grass that blankets the Jersey Shore.

But Mr. Dubruille (pronounced Dubruille), 69, and his wife, Dorothy, 63, find that farming the slow-growing green stuff for towns such as Margate, Cape May and Atlantic City is just their speed.

'Keep on growing'

"I get so excited when we walk along the Atlantic City Boardwalk and we see our dune grass on the beach there," said Dorothy Dubruille, who had come out to the dune-grass fields one searing hot morning with a pitcher of iced tea. "We tip our hat to it and say, 'Go od for you, dune grass. Keep on growing.' "

Mr. Dubruille's skin is so sun-browned that it looks like a baked apple beneath his half-unbuttoned red-and-white shirt.

Dune-grass farming was "not a money-maker, believe me," he says. "It's a yearlong job, and you're out there every day. The doggone weeds, they drive you crazy. You really wind up with peanuts, but I enjoy it. I guess I'm sort of a loner being in this field."

Truth be told, the field of dune-grass farming has been getting more crowded lately. The reason: the storms that have been ravaging the Atlantic coastline the last two years.

"There are a lot more people in the business than there used to be," said Donald W. Hamer, a manager with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Soil Conservation Service who is in charge o f certifying dune-grass growers up and down the Eastern seaboard. Mr. Hamer checks to make sure the growers are using the right soil and keeping away noxious weeds.

'Demand exceeds supply'

"Lately, we've been picking up two or three new growers a year because of the storms," said Mr. Hamer, whose office is in Cape May Court House. "The weather destroys the dunes and the dune grass, and towns need to rebuild. And the towns get federal money for it, so they don't mind spending it on dune grass."

"I had one grower in Maine who hadn't sold any beach grass and the season was almost over. But in the next three weeks, he sold out," said Mr. Hamer. "I'm not saying you can make a fortune off of it. You won't get rich, but every year the demand exceeds the supply."

Just before Memorial Day, for example, Margate plunked down 20,000 little dune grass plants from Mr. Dubruille's farm.

The big storm of December had wiped out much of Margate's dune line, said Joe Welsh, the superintendent of public works, "and we need to start bringing it back."

Dune-grass farming got its start after the northeaster of 1962 struck the Atlantic coast, wreaking damage that Jersey Shore old-timers still remember. Back then, Mr. Hamer was hired by the federal government to help develop a plant that would hold the dunes together.

Dune plant varieties

After years of trial and error, Cape American Beachgrass was born.

There are a few other kinds of dune plants: Coastal Panicgrass, Eastern Gamagrass and Sea Oats, the feathery-topped things that spring up on the beaches of South Carolina and Florida.

But Cape American Beachgrass is what you think of when you think of dune grass (if you think of it at all, of course). It's the spindly grass that sprouts in graceful clumps about 4 feet high, ++ and it has proved to be one of the heartiest things to ever take root on the Jersey Shore.

Almost as hearty as Mr. Dubruille.

Mr. Dubruille ("It's a Belgian name," said Mrs. Dubruille. "There's a song about it in Ypres, Belgium . . .") came to rural Cape May County as a boy of 14 in 1938, when his father, an orthopedic shoemaker, tried to beat the Depression-era economy by buying a 40-acre farm and growing tomatoes and peppers to sell in the markets of Ocean City, N.J.

"I hated farming," said Mr. Dubruille, remembering that his father almost lost the land. "You couldn't make a living in them days doing farming."

At 15, Mr. Dubruille was working for a fish company in Wildwood, N.J., illegally driving his 1932 Ford down to the ocean at 2 or 3 in the morning, when the slack tides made it easier to catch sea bass and weakfish in the big fishing nets.

Later, Mr. Dubruille went into construction, helping build the modern landscape of the Jersey Shore, including the Atlantic City casinos. He had his father's 40 acres, but he leased the land to soybean and wheat farmers.

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