Blue Grass Ltd. is a 3rd generation family business, dating back to 1950 in Manitoba when Grandpa Bert McEwen first started harvesting native pastureland for developments in Winnipeg.
In 1969, the Calgary Housing Authority began requesting sod for its projects. Always looking for new markets, Bert’s son Bill Sr. and daughter-in-law Gail purchased 155 acres of Native pastureland in Red Deer, choosing this location due to it’s good soil conditions and higher than average rainfall. While Bill Sr. completed the construction of Maple Ridge and Silversprings Golf Courses, Bert managed the farm and moved towards producing a registered nursery grown turf.
After extensive research, a blend of 85% Blue Grass and 15% Fescue was decided upon. By 1976 the entire property was in production with Blue Grass sod. Although the cultivars have changed over the years with the introduction of dwarf Blue Grasses and hardier varieties, the original mixture has become the standard that most quality turf is measured against. Today, Blue Grass Ltd. is much more than a family run business with more than 70 employees during peak times, and over 1400 acres of sod in production.
Bill’s sons have now taken over the reins from their parents, with Bruce overseeing the production of the sod in Red Deer and Bill Jr. managing the distribution outlet in Calgary.
To date, over 14 million square yards of sod have been cultivated and shipped to markets as far East as Regina, Sask. West to Fairmont, B.C. and North to Yellowknife, N.W.T. However, Calgary remains the largest consumer with over 1 million square yards of sod per year shipped in. If it’s green in Calgary there’s a good chance that it’s Blue Grass Sod. Due to good farming practices part of the original 155 acres is still in production today, 34 years later.
Technology has always played a large part in the sod industry and Blue Grass Ltd. has continually updated as new and more efficient machinery became available. When Bert first started harvesting sod, he and his sons did it all by hand from cutting to stacking and delivering. At that time there were no pallets and ride on forklifts, everything was hard physical labour. In the 70’s, “Ryan” walk behind harvesters became available, similar to a Rototiller but with a scissors action undercutting blade these machines enabled long lengths of sod to be produced at a standard width and depth dramatically reducing manpower, however the sod still had to be cut to length and stacked on and off the delivery vehicles. This machine did improve over the years with a cutoff feature automatically controlling the size of the finished product and was the main harvester used by Blue Grass Ltd. over the next ten years.
In 1980 the farm made a major investment and purchased a Princeton Automatic Harvester. For Bill Sr. and his sons, now working on the farm, this seemed like the ultimate – no more manual labour. However it proved to be an expensive lemon being broken down more often than it worked, (this technology needed more time). The machine was quickly replaced with a Brouer Harvester, not as automated but still a vast improvement on the old Ryan with the sod being cut, rolled and conveyed to where it was manually stacked on pallets all in one process. The Brouer’s served the company well and were used up until 1997.
Starting in the early 80’s sod began to be used extensively on large commercial projects leading to the creation of big roll harvesters and installers able to dramatically reduce labour costs when installing the sod. Blue Grass Ltd. replaced its Brouers with the new Bucyrus harvestors. These machines can cut big rolls and twice the amount of small rolls dramatically increasing production and decreasing costs for large sod jobs. With big roll machinery 40 square yards is cut at one time compared to the standard 1 sq. yd. Now 4 people and an installer can easily lay upwards of 6,000 yards per day. The future holds more advancement for turf equipment and Blue Grass Ltd. will continue to be a leader in this field. On the future wish list, possibly another automatic harvestor, which have come a long way since its predecessor was trialed in 1980.
If successful, this new type of sod will be of immense benefit to municipalities, golf courses, environmental reserves, landscape architects and developers. Blue Grass Ltd. is proud to contribute to the quality of life in the province, by greening its communities and wishes to thank all of Alberta for its continued support.
Bill, Bruce & Gail McEwen
Blue Grass Ltd.
In 1988, Blue Grass – Red Deer partnered with W.M. Holt Tree Farms Ltd. in order to establish a supply depot for its sod in Calgary. Mike Edgar, a friend of the family, accepted the position of Manager and proceeded to establish a very beneficial distribution outlet at W.M. Holts nursery in Calgary. This relationship eventually led to Blue Grass Ltd. purchasing the tree farm from Bill Holt in 1990. When it came to merging the two companies, a decision was made to keep the Holt name due to its long history (over 50 years) in the Calgary and North American nursery business.
Bill Jr. having just completed his Diploma in Horticulture from Olds College moved to Calgary assuming the role of Project Manager for the newly acquired company. (W.M.Holt) Knowing that the nursery business is a long-term investment, the company was pleased to have a family member committed to its growth and development.
Along with sod the company’s tree business has experienced phenomenal growth in Calgary. Since 1990 it is estimated that over 80,000 mature trees have been supplied or planted by our nursery team. With an average 5 years growth, before supplying a tree, it is not hard to imagine the benefits to Calgary’s communities that these trees have provided.
By 1997, W.M. Holt had outgrown its location near the Calgary airport and plans were developed for an eventual move. In 1999, a 22-acre parcel of land was purchased on the service road just south of the Balzac overpass. At the time, this seemed a long way out but we can already see the city growing around us, with no traffic congestion and easy access from Deerfoot Trail – the site has proved user friendly for staff and consumers alike. This new property underwent development in 2001 and the Grand Opening was held in the spring of 2002.
Along with the planning to relocate, it was decided to replace the W.M. Holt name with Blue Grass Ltd. as this better reflected the companies culture and consolidated the fact that Red Deer is now a lot more than sod alone, Bruce having opened a garden centre, and since 1996, had established more than 150 acres of land to Prairie Hardy tree production. To date, Red Deer has 40,000 plus trees growing giving a 4000+ unit tree production per year.
Having Red Deer grow more of Blue Grass Ltds.’ tree requirements has ensured that the company can move forward with control over the quality of its product and apply the same standards that built the Blue Grass Ltd. name in sod.
From a small family business, Blue Grass Ltd. has grown into one of Alberta’s largest Tree and Sod producers through its commitment to great service and quality plant material. With the family still playing major roles in the business, the tradition will continue for generations to come. Perhaps there is no better investment in the future than to plant a tree for our children and their children.