Iowa farmer builds polo ground of dreams

Friends thought at first Jeff Boeh had seen too many Kevin Costner movies. Now some of them are saddling up.

Along a narrow country road on the edge of town here, cornfields and houses loom side by side out of the rich flat earth. It's a typical landscape in this once sleepy suburban community, which hugs the banks of the Mississippi River in eastern Iowa. But, suddenly, there's a break in the tableau of cornstalks and roof lines, and something totally unexpected spreads out from what was once a farmer's field.

It's a full-size polo ground.

The field is the creation of Jeff Boeh, a local farmer with rugged good looks and a love of horses. Mr. Boeh built the field because of a serendipitous encounter with the sport and because he didn't want every parcel of farmland to succumb to a strip mall and subdivision.

When he first started plowing under his corn, however, many locals thought he had been watching too many Kevin Costner movies.

But, slowly, Boeh is winning people over to the idea of mallets and funny helmets here in the land of combines and Kiwanis clubs. When he staged his first polo match, it was hard to find a parking spot in the grass behind the field. More than 1,000 people turned out on a muggy August evening to see what Jeff Boeh was doing to his cornfield, sporting everything from overalls and muddy boots to dresses and high heels.

Since then, Boeh has started holding a major event every year, formed a local polo club, and holds regular practices that draw area farmers – to play, not snicker. "People think polo is a highfalutin, rich man's sport," says Mike Garner, who farms 1,300 acres of corn and soybeans in nearby LeClaire. "But get yourself a pair of jeans and a mallet and a ball, and you can get started."

• • •

The Boehs' farm is one of the few remaining in Bettendorf, a prosperous and rapidly growing suburb of Davenport. The 155-acre site was first settled by Boeh's great-grandfather in 1900. These days, however, the land is worth far more as real estate than for any crops or cattle the Boehs might tend. Subdivisions like the neighboring Beaver Crossing – Bettendorf's "most exciting new neighborhood" – are consuming the fecund farms that have helped make Iowa the corncrib of the world. Developers have already put in a golf course nearby. Talk is circulating of a strip mall down the road.

Even as the value of their land has gone up, however, the Boehs have refused to have their farm paved with asphalt. "I wouldn't say it was a dream of ours to build a polo field, but it was our dream to do something other than build houses on it," Boeh says, preparing for a practice.

In 2004, as the suburbs started closing in, Boeh and his wife, Marcy, started talking around the kitchen table about how to keep their farm a farm. "We had the idea of trying to develop an equestrian center here," Boeh says. But they concluded there wasn't enough local demand.

Later, Boeh's father, Alfred, handed him a story about a local polo exhibition. "I said to Jeff, 'You ought to get acquainted with these guys,' " Alfred Boeh recalls. A club from Peoria, Ill., was doing a clinic across the river, so Jeff decided to go. "I rode a couple of times down there, and I started to like it," he says.

He started thinking about starting a polo club for Quad Cities (Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Ill.). Boeh thought it could act as a bridge between the encroaching urban community and the vanishing farmers.

Of course, polo, a sport often associated with British aristocracy, might seem a strange fit with the overalls ethos of the rural Midwest. But the two do have one important thing in common – horses. "Some of the greatest players in US polo history have been people with farming and ranching backgrounds," says Chuck Weaver, governor of the central circuit of the United States Polo Association (USPA), which covers Iowa.

It was Boeh's experience with horses that led him into polo as well. "My parents joked that I could ride a horse before I could walk without falling," he says.

Boeh even looks the part: He has the weathered features of a cowboy. He is a tall man with broad shoulders and powerful hands. His first date with Marcy was a trail ride, and he says he knew he would marry her after she galloped off ahead of him.

When Boeh stopped planting corn on 14 acres to build his field, word spread through the close-knit farming community. "First off, everyone thought we were planting sod, because of the new development here," Boeh says. "I said, 'We're not planting sod; we're building a polo field.' When I said that, people just looked at me."

Boeh enlisted Rod Blunk, who farms corn and soybeans nearby, to help clear the land. The two knew each other from coaching little league. Mr. Blunk, who lent Boeh his rubber tire excavator, found himself discussing the mysterious project with neighbors. "The reaction among most of the farmers was, 'He took some prime ground out of production – what's he thinking?' "

Corn crops earn farmers about $60 per acre. Boeh had almost 10 percent of his farm dedicated to a polo field – with no team. Neighbors would drive by and see Boeh touching up the field, which he worked on for almost a year. "I'm not sure if I should use the words shock or dismay," Blunk says of the reaction. "It was surprise."

• • •

On a hot night in August 2006, Boeh hosted his first game. The match drew area farmers and curious city people. Weaver's Peoria club, combined with a team from St. Louis, took on a team from Madison, Wis. Boeh rode with Weaver for his first competitive game. The crowd cheered when teams scored. Many participated in the divot stomping during the intermission.

The next day, Boeh hosted a polo clinic put on by veterans from the visiting clubs. Some of the locals who participated in the event formed the nucleus of the eventual Quad Cities Polo Club, which became registered with the USPA last January. About nine players show up regularly for Saturday practices, although not everyone has horses, so Boeh lends them one of his.

That's how Mr. Garner, who is wearing a red T-shirt, Wrangler jeans, and cowboy boots, got started. He comes to most of the club's practices and recently bought a polo-trained horse.

Boeh considers the polo endeavor a success, so far. The field is complete, the club practices regularly, but the reality is, he says, "we don't make anything off the polo field." The maintenance costs are covered by volunteers from the club. Boeh believes it will pay for itself one day.

Others wonder if the field will be able to resist encroaching housing developments. A farmer nearby was offered close to $10,000 per acre for his land. "I just think there will be too much pressure to develop, and they'll be offered something they can't refuse," says Blunk.

Boeh's father talks about the pressure to develop the land as he watches the team practice on a Saturday. "I'm hoping we won't have to let this go to shopping malls and houses," Alfred Boeh says. "We've built something good here."

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