From farm to front yard

Zamora is Butte County’s sod superpower

SOD BUSTERS Don Marshall, left, and Rich Leeds, right, who co-own Zamora Sod Farm with Craig Thompson (not pictured), are in the midst of the busiest month for sod sales.

SOD BUSTERS Don Marshall, left, and Rich Leeds, right, who co-own Zamora Sod Farm with Craig Thompson (not pictured), are in the midst of the busiest month for sod sales.

photo by Tom Angel

Name game: Zamora Sod Farm is named for the type of Class 1 soil--a silt-loam--that’s grown there.

A pleasant drive down a long gravel road gives way to the Zamora Sod Farm in Butte City, which is the only sod farm north of Sacramento to the Oregon border. The riverside farm is a grand 400 acres and consists of 125 acres of manicured sod fields and a walnut orchard. In a year, the sod farm will supply Butte County with 70 percent of its sod: 125 acres’ worth of local lawns.

“This is really a bread basket we live in,” said Jim Mathys, who handles wholesale business for Zamora Nurseries Inc. “The whole North Valley is just booming with building and construction; we’re really busy.”

Since 80 percent of the company’s income comes from contracted building, the nursery and sod farm relies heavily on community growth. The main factors in the company’s sales are how many building contracts it has scheduled and the weather.

“Like any other ag business, Mother Nature plays a huge part in our production and sales,” sales manager Joe Kurung said. “When there is a drought no one wants to buy sod, and if there is too much rain no one needs sod; it’s kind of a crap shoot.”

It takes about four to six months to grow the sod, so seeding begins promptly in the beginning of March and September. (The land is turned over twice in a year.) Sod is cut and rolled best when the weather is moderate, so field workers begin cutting as soon as the day cools off.

During the spring and fall, sod is cut in the late afternoon, but during the summer sod is cut at 3 a.m. in order to make it onto the delivery trucks by 6 a.m. The field workers are out there for about 10 hours a day in the heat and rain, and the older workers pick weeds from the butterfly-laden greens.

The sod farm itself is like a close-knit little community. Kurung has worked there since the company was founded 14 years ago, and there is a small network among the field hands.

“Our field foreman has worked here for over a decade,” worker Bob Drobny said. “He just lives a few miles up the road, and a lot of his family works here, too. Everyone does a little bit of everything when you’re in a small business; it’s a total group effort.”

Drobny has also been with the company since its beginning and helps with both the nursery and sod farms under the Zamora Nursery’s three owners, Don Marshall, Rich Leeds and Craig Thompson. Thompson is the nursery’s managing partner and works about 11 hours a day seven days a week.

“October is our busiest time of year,” said Leeds, who is president of Zamora Sod and Nursery. “After a while you don’t even look at the clock anymore, not until the job is done.”

Leeds and Marshall incorporated the nursery with their sod farms in Butte City and Anderson four years ago when Thompson came along. Leeds and Marshall started the sod farm in the fall of 1987 after being introduced to each other by their wives, who are best friends.

“When we started 14 years ago we thought we knew everything,” Leeds said. “Boy were we wrong.”

Before founding the sod farm, Leeds worked in irrigation sales and noticed that he was mostly dealing with contractors from the Bay Area. Leeds said he saw a niche, so he and Marshall just “jumped into it.”

The more visible part of the Zamora Sod and Nursery enterprise is the actual Zamora Nursery, located in Chico. Like going to visit Grandma’s house, customers are greeted before they can even reach the door of the homey, cream-colored wood building.

“We’ve got tulips! You like ’em; they’re great for any time of year,” Zamora clerk Christy Pavich yells from behind a rack of flower seeds in an attempt to help an indecisive teenage girl pick the perfect flower for her garden.

Pavich’s knack for picking the perfect flower can be attributed to her university degree in horticulture and the many years she has spent working in nurseries. Standing in the cool shade, watering flowers and talking with other plant lovers on a daily basis, is what she likes to do most.

“There’s a lot of people, young and old, in Chico who like and have the time to do yard work," Pavich says. "So every customer is different and every day is a good time."