Nick McKenna jokes with family and friends that he is still a farmer. Instead of growing soybeans or corn or raising livestock, however, McKenna is in the business of growing another high value crop: grass for Texas A&M’s athletic facilities.
“I’m a grass farmer,” McKenna said. “We’re dealing with a multi-million or billion dollar industry here on a daily basis. Like on a farm, you’re maintaining a field and it has an impact on the local economy. I’m passionate about my work, just like how farmers are passionate about their work.”
McKenna’s roots can be traced back to the farm as he grew up in Garrison. His family owned a hog farm at the time as a young McKenna became involved in sports and agriculture early. By the time he was in high school, McKenna was a member of the local FFA chapter, wrestling and working on the farm. He had his first exposure to turfgrass care with helping to mow the family acreage and at the local church.
“My dad and I would mow the grounds at St. Mary Catholic Church and then our own nine acres,” McKenna said. “I’d do a few neighbor’s yards and stuff like that was kind of how I got into the turf industry a little. I would make my money in the summers as a kid mowing.”
But McKenna did not consider turfgrass as a possible career when he first arrived at Iowa State University. He was a State FFA officer during his first two years in college, studying Agricultural Biochemistry as a major.
“I had a love for science and a love for agriculture, so I thought my major would be a good combination of the two,” McKenna said. “As an 18 year old kid, you’re thinking about how to make the most money possible to be rich someday.
Halfway through his second semester, McKenna felt his current path would not work out for him in the long term and couldn’t see himself in a laboratory. He switched to a double major of Ag Education and Animal Science with a goal of one day of becoming an FFA advisor. After a year, McKenna’s mind was ultimately changed again.
“That’s when I really started to think about what I enjoyed and wanted to pursue as a career for the rest of my life,” McKenna said. “The first thing that came back to me was growing up on my hog farm. In the early 2000s, the hog markets were terrible. I couldn’t see a future in the industry. So. I fell back on the other thing I really enjoyed growing up: lawn maintenance.”
Through his contacts in FFA, McKenna got in touch with Iowa State’s turfgrass program and “tumbled down the rabbit hole” as he put it. He quickly learned a vast majority of the students in the program were focused on the golf course industry. Knowing he was two to three years behind these students, McKenna took a different path.”
Iowa State had one of the top professors in the sports turf world, so I saw there was another path in sports field management,” McKenna said. “I felt this would really be a good fit for me just because I’m passionate about athletics and I loved playing sports growing up. The turfgrass component was a tie-in to my ag background.”
McKenna would eventually take a job with the field maintenance crew at the university to get firsthand experience. When he graduated from ISU in 2002, his future wife wished to pursue a masters degree at Texas A&M. McKenna had previously visited the campus through his brother pursuing a PHD degree in College Station. A call by his boss at ISU led to a job at TAMU.
“It timed out perfectly that Texas A&M had an opening and the job was mine if I wanted it,” McKenna said. “They basically gave me the job off of the recommendation of my boss of Iowa State.”
The Garrison native was one of three groundskeepers on staff responsible for maintaining every single playing field that the athletic program had, which ranged from football, baseball, softball, track and field, and soccer. Different seasons meant different sports, so the focus would change as the seasons shifted.
McKenna spent three years in College Station before returning to Iowa as his wife, Holly, took on the ag advisor role at Benton Community High School. Over the course of several years, he worked in landscaping, selling commercial turf equipment and even tried his hand as a grounds manager for a golf course. Eventually, McKenna’s path led him back to school at Virginia Tech in 2007 to pursue a masters degree. He worked on their athletic fields while studying for his degree, transitioning into a full-time position with the university’s athletic department in a role similar to his previous work at TAMU.
College Station called McKenna back home in the summer of 2011. The university was beginning a massive $24 million renovation for the baseball stadium. An employee was leaving, so his former boss reached out with a “meaningful and worthwhile offer” to oversee the maintenance of the baseball grounds. The intention was for McKenna to one day take over the Assistant Athletic Fields Manager as his manager planned to retire. Three years later, his boss passed away unexpectedly and the transition began immediately.
“We had already been slowly working on that transition to the position I’m now in today,” McKenna said. “I basically just helped oversee everything on a daily basis and coordinate our crew, make sure everything’s getting done that we need to be getting done.”
Through his position, McKenna has had the opportunity to get to know the athletes well, especially with the baseball program.
“The field can play such an important factor in the game,” McKenna said. “Our coaches and players recognize that and they treat our staff basically like we’re a member of their team. For me personally, this is a way to still be involved in athletics in a role I enjoy.”
When COVID-19 first hit the U.S. in February and March, even top-tier athletic programs such as at TAMU could not escape the impact of the virus. Facilities were shut down in mid March. According to McKenna, the baseball team was about to board a bus to the airport for a weekend series when they got the call the series was cancelled. Things only began to snowball to the point that the university did not have a single athletic activity on their fields for nearly six months.
“All the students more or less got sent home to finish their studies online,” McKenna said. “Nothing was getting used for four to six months. No one could give us an answer of when everything could resume. They could call us to say activities were starting up in a week, or say it would be another two months.”
McKenna and the staff continued to maintain the fields while athletes were away, though the lack of usage meant there was less wear and tear on the field. Adjustments were made to socially distance and keep everyone safe. Their department saw major budget cuts. Despite the adversity everything was ready to go when athletes did return.
“The great thing about our athletic department is they’re committed to supporting our student athletes,” McKenna said. “Our purpose is to be here to serve these student athletes and give them opportunities. We’re still pretty well supported and being able to do what we need to do. We don’t quite get the interaction with the athletes that we used to get pre-coronavirus. I think that will all change over time as things continue to develop.”
From a population standpoint, McKenna knows there is quite a difference from Benton County to a major college town. He visits occasionally and coached wrestling during his return in the mid 2000s. While there are differences in the two ways of living, McKenna said his current situation would not be possible without growing up in the Garrison and Vinton area.
“If I didn’t have my childhood and experience I enjoyed growing up in that area, I likely would not have started down the path I went,” McKenna said. “If I hadn’t grown up in an ag-related home, I might not have made the connections I did. It’s funny how every little thing ties together.”