Farming Lambeau

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When people ask me “What do you do for a living?” sometimes I tell them I’m a farmer.

It’s not totally true, but it’s not so far off, either. “Farmer” doesn’t appear anywhere on my business card, but like lot of farmers in America, I grow one crop. I obsess over it all year long. I fidget and fuss with it. My waking (and sometimes dreaming) hours are consumed by making this one crop the best it can be. But it’s not soybean or corn or barley. My crop is the grass on Lambeau Field.

I’m the Fields Manager for the Green Bay Packers.

“Wait, so what is it you actually do?” I get that question a lot, too.

Put simply, I’m the nurturer of the grass. This is my 19th season with the Green Bay Packers organization. It’s my job to make sure the field is as safe and strong as possible for every single game. I’ve never scored a touchdown or taken a snap in an NFL game, that’s for sure. But I’m proud to be one small part of the machine that gets the Packers ready for game day. That means I’m not only a farmer, but also a part-time meteorologist, which is a nearly impossible task. But I’ll try to get to that later.

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As a job, I measure my success in an unorthodox way. If I’m doing my job right, I’m invisible. If everything is going well, the fan is noticing the football game, not the surface it’s being played on. The field should speak for itself, and I should be an afterthought. How many jobs define success like that?

I played football in my youth and am a fan of the game, but this job forces me to see the game a little differently. I’ve trained myself to watch from the ground-up — quite literally. While most people are watching a slanting receiver snag a pass across the middle, I’m looking at his feet when he changes direction quickly. How’s his footing? Or I’m watching a linebacker’s cleats. Is he slipping more than he should be? Or maybe the weather is suddenly changing. I’m observing how the evening dew might be making the grass slick.

If I’m doing my job right, I’m invisible. How many jobs define success like that?

What makes a field a good playing surface for football? It’s all about footing. It’s a subjective measurement, but any football player can tell you when a field has too much, or too little, “give” to it. That’s footing. And that’s what I spend most of my job thinking about. When you factor in Mother Nature’s whims — humidity in August, heavy dew in September, frost in November, snow in December, and Arctic air in January– getting the footing of a field correct is a constant game of adjustment.

The big paradox of a maintaining a football field is something more fundamental: grass isn’t meant to be trampled on. Cleats and grass are enemies. One is out to destroy the other. Imagine planting soybean and then trampling on it with cleats every day for six or seven months. You’d ruin your crop. And yet, the football field must always be ready for the next game. The game must always go on. That’s the beauty of it.

Another beautiful part of an outdoor field, in my opinion, is that “looks” are secondary to the performance of the surface. There’s a big difference between appearance and playability. Some weeks, especially as winter sets in, you’ll look at Lambeau and see the thin turf in the high wear areas. Of course, everyone wants the field to look beautiful, too, but it’s easy to see a green field and assume it’s a perfect playing surface. Too much grass (or canopy, as we call the top cover of grass) can create a playing surface that’s too dense. Cleats won’t penetrate as easily, and injuries could occur. Too little grass and the surface may not soft enough to safely absorb the impact of a player being tackled to the ground.

There have been a lot of improvements in field “technology” over the years that are pretty interesting, but I’ll try not to bore you with too many details. For instance, I could tell you all about the advanced heating systems we use to keep the field from freezing. I could explain how “mud bowls” are a thing of the past because the clay foundation has been replaced with sand. I could tell you how that means that the field is less slippery because it drains better. Or I could tell you how the downside of sand is that it retains fewer nutrients than clay, which means it requires more frequent fertilization in small amounts (this is called spoon-feeding).

Grass is a really challenging crop to manage. For one thing, caring for grass is extremely time-intensive. Every year we actually mechanically remove the grass — we rip up the whole field at Lambeau — and then seed it all back in from scratch. Every year, we regrow it. For the grass, it’s always rookie year.

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It’s a needy crop, too. Grass needs to be nurtured. I often compare it to a parent-child relationship. It’s a year-round job. Lambeau Field never goes more than a day without someone checking on it. In the heat of summer, it’s a few times per day. As soon as winter ends and spring comes, I tell people: if you see farmers out in their fields, it means our crew at Lambeau is at work again, too. We probably even beat the farmers by a few weeks because we have a heating system in our stadium field that allows us to get a jumpstart on Mother Nature.

The weather in Wisconsin is so volatile that we have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait.”

Grass is also highly sensitive to weather conditions, a fact that anyone with a lawn in the Midwest already knows. The weather in Wisconsin is so volatile that we have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait.” In the summer we’ll have days with temperatures in the 80s, with really high humidity. Or we’ll have an August day in the 90s, with almost no humidity and high winds. You get rain, you get frost, you get wind … and then there’s the infamous, sometimes endless, winters. You can try to predict the weather. But sometimes the weatherman is just dead wrong. Does the 2007 “Snow Bowl” playoff game against Seattle ring a bell?

You might not be surprised to find out that the thing people ask me most about my job isn’t about grass or footing or weather. When fans hear what I do, they want to know how well I know some of the players. The truth is, after 19 years, I see the players as my co-workers (albeit more athletic co-workers). We work at the same place and my role is to support their efforts in winning. They and the many football fans around the world are the reason I have this wonderful job.

The next time you are looking forward to that big game and bad weather is forecasted, remember there is another team going to work: it’s the field crew. We are battling the elements, dodging sleet or snow, and enduring temperatures that can give you frostbite as we prepare the playing surface for kickoff. Sometimes when all are asleep, we are working through the night. We do whatever and whenever is necessary to get it right. And when the whistle blows, our job is complete, until the next one. Enjoy the show.

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In addition to his role with the Green Bay Packers, Johnson serves as President of the Sports Turf Managers Association, a 2,600 member professional organization of men and women who manage sports fields worldwide.

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