The Meadows of Sixmile Creek is a golfer’s haven with beautiful terrain, a clubhouse and experienced golf professionals. However, what sets it apart from the rest lies within the biology of its soil.
Golf courses aren’t normally synonymous with eco-friendly practices. The manicured grass is usually a result of heavy water use and potent, synthetic chemical applications to remove and prevent all sorts of pests, fungi and diseases.
The answer is yes. Social pressure to mind the environment and an existing desire for new upkeep regulation has put sustainable practices on the agenda of golf courses like The Meadows of Sixmile Creek.
Steve Stumbras, part owner of The Meadows of Sixmile Creek, and Jeanne Whitish, an innovative real estate developer, are both members of the Madison Golf and Development Group, which is responsible for The Meadows as well as the course at Windwood of Watertown.
“[Whitish] wanted to take this non-functioning marsh [and surrounding land] and turn it into a sports amenity—golf—and restore the health of the ponds,” Stumbras says.
According to Stumbras, Whitish was ahead of her time. There was a golf boom in the 1990s, when the course was being developed, but the industry wasn’t interested in investing in sustainable development. Despite the lack of community involvement, the project forged on. Whitish saw too great of an opportunity to not move forward.
The restoration was nothing short of a success. The 18-hole course has 40 additional acres of natural habitat and is now home to a variety of wildlife including Sand Hill Cranes, Red Fox, Yellow Winged Blackbirds and Egrets, to name a few.
“The success of the marsh restoration, of the golf course property [also] got us thinking about using compost from a maintenance and fertility standpoint,” Stumbras says.
With this success, Madison Golf and Development Group, who had a great degree of familiarity with healthy growing and biologically enhanced products, decided to experiment with composting on-site at The Meadows. Years later, this would form the company Purple Cow Organics, in which Stumbras also holds part ownership.
In 2010, The Meadows of Sixmile Creek officially switched over to the soil and maintenance products from Purple Cow Organics. The company, based in Middleton, Wisconsin, specializes in providing compost and other natural or biologically enhanced products often used for course and sports field maintenance.
Because of Stumbras’ stake in both Purple Cow Organics and The Meadows, the property uses the course as grounds for experimentation for new and developing products.
While the push for environmental initiatives in a recreational setting has proven successful for The Meadows, there are limitations to biological and eco-products.
Paul Koch, assistant professor in plant pathology at UW-Madison, researches the use of pesticides in urban and suburban areas, frequently including the effect of pesticides on turf grass.
Koch is expanding his research to investigate microbes, which includes pests and diseases found on golf courses, before and after pesticide use. According to some preliminary research, bio-products are not as effective as synthetic pesticides in controlling the microbial community.
A challenge of using more natural products “is the lack of research into their efficacy,” Koch says. The Meadows’ sustainable approach involves using natural and organic matter rather than synthetic pesticides within the soil and fertilizer products as a means for course maintenance.
In order to see effective change, a significant amount of time—and consequently, money—is required in order to apply enough products to effectively modify the area of land being treated. The microbial base isn’t the only hurdle, however.
“There are a lot of different factors that come into play out in the field,” Koch explains. “There is sunlight, competing organisms and rainfall…one aspect is temperature.”
“Most natural products contain natural sources of nutrients and organic matter that reportedly increase the activity and potentially the population size of the microbes in the system, which then can lead to increased health of the plant,” Koch says.
Microbes cannot function properly if the environment is not optimal for their survival. Because the soil is “alive,” a certain level of activation is required, which diminishes if the outdoor temperature falls outside of the optimal range.
With that said, there is a significantly lower amount of activity in terms of the microbes and their success at removing pests if the temperature is higher or lower than the microbes preferred “activation temperature,” or the temperature that the microbes function at their most successful.
According to Koch, very cold weather makes bio-products less effective because of the microbes’ lower levels of activity.
“A lot of things that look great in the greenhouse and the growth chamber don’t have as much benefit once we put them out in the field,” Koch says.
This ineffectiveness that Koch is referring to is pest and disease control. The golfers have a very low tolerance overall for the presence of disease, according to Koch. There is a high demand for perfectly maintained terrain—absent of areas of disease that may be harmful and displeasing, like yellow patches of grass—and bio-enhanced products are not as effective as synthetic pesticides in controlling this problem.
However, Koch does see a trend emerging from golf course maintenance. This trend is slow, but is heading toward safer product usage. These changes are catalyzed by two important realities for golf course maintenance: the inevitable changes in pesticide regulation on golf courses and social pressures to become as environmentally sustainable as possible.
“I think it is clear that regulation on pesticide use will continue to increase. We’ve seen that in Canada and Europe, so it will come to the States,” Koch says. “In addition to that, there is a social pressure to move toward being eco-conscious. Golf course superintendents don’t want to harm potential golfers, their crew or themselves.”
According to Koch, while the tighter regulation on pesticides is inevitable as these guidelines have always been changing and evolving, the emerging social pressure is somewhat new. He believes that more golfers seem to be concerned with the health of their courses, but the superintendents of these golf courses have an overwhelming responsibility to keep their course perfect and their clients healthy. Koch believes that if proven more effective than synthetic products, superintendents would absolutely move forward with more natural and sustainable products.
Because of these two main factors, changing regulation and social pressure to keep the course healthy, there is more time and research devoted to these products at UW-Madison than ever before. While The Meadows has found success, Koch’s own research and knowledge of the field concludes that in terms of effective bio-products, we are not quite there but heading in the right direction.
Ryan McCrumb is a 22-year-old Waunakee resident. He has been a golfer for most of his life and played on both the Middleton High School and Edgewood College golf teams. This summer he worked on the maintenance side, taking care of the course, mowing the grass and learning more about the natural products used at Sixmile, rather than in the clubhouse.
In the past, McCrumb worked more with golf professionals in the shop and on the course than with the maintenance team dedicated to keeping the course healthy and well-groomed.
“I was very pleased to find out about the changes Sixmile was making in terms of their facilities and using eco-friendly fertilizers,” McCrumb says. “I’ve never seen anything like that before and I never thought you could care that much about a golf course.”
While talking about the conditions of The Meadows compared with other courses McCrumb has played on during his tenure as a competitive golfer, he recognizes the limitations and challenges that come with eco-product usage.
Before starting work at the course, McCrumb explains that he was apprehensive about imperfections in the course and the fact that the eco-products would take longer to correct divots.
“Early on [in the new] eco-friendly program, I understood that there were some diseases that grew on the grass—there were splotches on the green—but this is Sixmile’s third year using the new products and it looks beautiful,” McCrumb says.
This learning curve, followed by success in the control of disease, supports the notion that a microbial base takes time to build.
Although results are inconsistent and more research is required to improve the effectiveness of biological and natural products, according to research done by Koch and his department, it is very likely that the future of golf course maintenance will only continue to move in a more environmentally conscious direction.
Madison has already seen changes in regulation, such as a recent ban on phosphorus fertilizers. This ban is only the beginning of pesticide regulation and is one of the reasons The Meadows decided to replace 100 percent of its synthetic fertilizers and 95 percent of chemical herbicides with compost products.
The lack of change, despite switching to compost products, is a testament to the team’s dedication. The conditions of the course have remained well-maintained and consistent since switching to natural products, according to Joe Wood, head golf professional at The Meadows.
Whether this dedication is the result of future product regulations for golf courses, as Koch mentioned, or pure environmental consciousness, as discussed with Stumbras, the future holds a great deal of change for golf course maintenance in Wisconsin and beyond.
So, is the “game of kings” also a game of sustainability? While The Meadows has seen great success, the setbacks that come with natural products are inevitable. Once these products improve and are comparable to the successes seen in synthetic chemicals, Koch predicts that more courses across the state will embrace the natural approach.
How To: Fling Golf
At The Meadows of Sixmile Creek, golfers come to play a round of 18 holes. But what about those who long to get outside and play, but lack golf skills in the traditional sense? This is where Fling Golf comes in. Samantha Wolfin is joined by Joe Woods, the head golf professional at Sixmile Creek golf course, to show her how to play and why they brought the game to their course.