Turf farms are a 'valuable agricultural commodity' in Pawcatuck watershed

Workers last month at Kingston Turf Farm harvest turf grass.   (Tim Cook/The Day)
Workers last month at Kingston Turf Farm harvest turf grass. (Tim Cook/The Day)

North just two-and-a-half miles from Kenyon Industries and the banks of the Pawcatuck River, a landscape more reminiscent of the Great Plains than rocky, hilly New England meets the eye — acres of flat, stone-free fields lush with the signature crop of modern human landscapes.

There, Peter Butson drives his pickup truck along one of the dirt roads through Kingston Turf’s 300 acres of grass destined for Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, Yankee Stadium, golf courses and country clubs.

Employing 25 people, it is one of eight wholesale and retail turf farms in this part of the watershed, occupying a combined total of about 3,000 acres that once grew potatoes in these well-drained soils.

Butson, sales representative for the company, said the proximity to the Beaver and Queen rivers, two main tributaries of the Pawcatuck, are essential to the business, providing up to 2,500 gallons of water per minute to irrigate the crop. Other turf farms in the region either draw directly from the river, its tributaries or production wells on the same aquifer.

“There are no limits on how much water we can draw,” Butson said as he pulled up beside the Beaver River. “But it’s never run dry.”

He drove past Brock Bouchard, who started the company in 1967, operating a large machine called an Autostack that was rolling up slices of turf for a customer in Westchester County. Butson said the company uses chemical fertilizers sparingly “because it costs money.” Regulators have not cited it for polluted runoff getting into the river.  

Nevertheless, this section — from the former Kenyon dam to the Carolina mill pond — is on the DEM’s 2015 List of Impaired Waters. Pollutants in this stretch render the river toxic to some wildlife, the report states, and levels of e-coli bacteria are too high for safe swimming.

Denise Poyer, program director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, said the group’s pursuit of Wild and Scenic River status, a National Park Service program that enhances river protection, will provide the tools to address the pollution problems, including identifying the causes. Mostly, she believes, the pollution is coming from multiple small sources such as lawn fertilizers and road runoff.

“As we do the Wild and Scenic plan, we’ll develop a management plan for how to deal with the pollution, and we’ll invite industry representatives to the table,” she said. The turf farms, she said, are vital parts of the region’s economy that can coexist with the goal of improving the river’s water quality.

“The turf farms are a valuable agriculture commodity,” she said. “We want to see our farms protected.”

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

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