HAMMONTON, N.J. — On the biggest soccer weekends, the players come from New Jersey, Canada and beyond, their noses pressed flat against car and bus windows as they marvel at the sea of fields and the even larger panorama beyond: acres of lush, green, pristine grass.
This place is far from the glamour of big-time soccer and the World Cup in Russia. There are few amenities down at the end of this dirt road: just 35 full-size fields, endless parking, dozens of portable toilets and a cluster of food trucks. But there are no bleachers, no scoreboards, no public-address systems for the matches. Here, the soccer dreams of the young players, under the watchful eyes of soccer moms and dads, and dozens of college scouts, are contained only by the sidelines.
Almost none of them know the back story of why they are here, of the economic crisis that led the property’s owner, Tuckahoe Turf Farms, to welcome youth soccer onto a fraction of the 800 acres of sandy loam soil it owns in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The grass they play on eventually will be rolled up and installed in college and professional stadiums.
Once it is ready, Tuckahoe’s blend of cool-season sod is trucked to Heinz Field in Pittsburgh; to Lincoln Financial Field and Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia; to Red Bull Arena, in Harrison, N.J.; FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland; and Fenway Park in Boston.
Sometimes, the company lays its sod over stadiums’ artificial surfaces for a week or two, for international soccer matches like the coming International Champions Cup, an annual preseason tournament that attracts many of the world’s top clubs. But first, the youth players give it a workout.
“There’s grass as far as the eye can see, and it makes the kids feel special,” said Alan Shilling, the chief executive of the event management company EDP Soccer, which has been hosting soccer tournaments at the farm for about five years. One tournament, over Memorial Day weekend, attracted more than 300 teams and about 25,000 visitors.
“We could put 100 perfect and pristine fields down and not use half the facility,” he said.
Allen Carter, a farm employee who was drafted into a public-relations position, said the size of the farm has given Tuckahoe a “huge marketing opportunity.” A decade ago, things were not nearly as optimistic.
“EDP approached us when the economy was going bad for us, the housing market took a dive and sod production was cut more than half,” Carter said. “We rented the facility to try to stay alive. They did one tournament and kept coming back to do more.”
The farm hosts about seven tournaments a year, with the biggest ones taking place over the Easter, Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. There is also a late-season event over the Thanksgiving holiday. Sometimes, school board members, coaches and recruiters return home and call back to ask about sod for their home stadiums.
The company has embraced the opportunity, and the added revenue. But longtime employees bristle at the idea that they have changed their business. “We have issues with being called a soccer complex,” Carter said. “It’s not what we are. It is a working farm.”