CELS Alum Revolutionizes Turfgrass Management through Technology

The buzz of a drone hovers over an expansive green fairway. Your smartphone pings in your pocket as it receives a notification and important information from above. This is the future of turfgrass management in the golf industry, and College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) alumnus Jason VanBuskirk is at the forefront. “I love turfgrass, I love technology,” says VanBuskirk, whose technology has helped fuel a global corporation.

A 2006 graduate of CELS Department of Plant Sciences and Entomology’s Turfgrass Management program, VanBuskirk’s interest in turf was born out of necessity during high school. “I was 15 years old and I wanted to buy a car,” says VanBuskirk, who started working at a golf course to earn extra money. That’s where he developed an interest in what would become a lifelong passion for turfgrass management. “It found a really soft spot in my heart,” says VanBuskirk. “I fell in love with how the game is actually managed, manicured, and taken care of.”

After talking with his manager about college-level turf management programs, he set his sights on URI. There, his love for turf continued to grow. “We are control freaks in an uncontrollable environment,” VanBuskirk says as he describes turfgrass management. “But that’s the coolest part of the job.” After graduating, he landed a job at a different golf course and became a golf course superintendent by the age of 24.

He credits his experiences at CELS with helping him develop the skills needed to succeed in the turf management field. “CELS gave me the foundational building blocks to understand the most I can about the actual environment,” he says. “It’s a great institution. The faculty there are passionate, and they care about the students.”

In addition to his interest in turf, VanBuskirk has always had a fascination with technology. “I grew up with technology in my pocket and I really enjoyed the possibility of having connections all over the place,” he says. VanBuskirk found ways to combine his passion for turf and tech, which eventually led to the formation of his small start-up company, Turf Cloud, an idea he conceived while working at a local golf course. His new creation gave golf course superintendents the ability to digitally store and organize turf management data pertaining to employee duties, equipment, or agricultural monitoring on a cloud-based platform that can be conveniently accessed from anywhere via a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.

VanBuskirk’s cutting-edge technology caught the attention of a global tech company in the golf industry that was searching for a database storage system. GreenSight, an international Boston-based company, uses drone systems to gather data and aerial imagery for the golf industry relevant to turfgrass health, such as water usage, soil temperature, disease symptoms, and evaporation rates. “You can really get out there and have a bird’s eye view of what your property looks like,” says VanBuskirk.

GreenSight’s drones, containing three camera sets, have the ability to record high-resolution, near-infrared, and thermal data. However, GreenSight lacked the ability to store data collected by the drones. That’s when they turned to VanBuskirk’s company for its digital database system. GreenSight liked it so much, they purchased the company and VanBuskirk joined their team.

VanBuskirk, GreenSight’s vice president of sales and marketing, is excited about the possibilities offered through the combined drone and data packaging platform. The technology, for example, is helping to promote sustainability in the golf industry by helping golf courses make better land management decisions, such as preventing over-watering.  “How are we going to make things more sustainable?” asks VanBuskirk. “Apply less chemistry, apply less water, and just be a better steward of our environment.” And with more and more people becoming interested in the company, VanBuskirk is helping push this innovative technology across the globe. “We’re doing daily imagery for courses in Japan, we’re trying to work with another company in South Korea, we did a number of flights and missions in Switzerland,” he notes.

Reflecting on his CELS experience and the accomplishments of his career so far, VanBuskirk is grateful for the time he’s spent pursuing both of his passions for turf and tech. “It’s a labor of love, is really what it comes down to,” he says. “If what you’re doing is what you love, then it’s not a job”.