How To Remain Viable in an Increasingly 'Sustainable' Environment

What happens in Canada doesn’t always stay in Canada, in reference to a push in the U.S. for health care reform and a growing interest to regulate the application of control products. The two are fundamentally unrelated albeit one important area: government involvement.

Currently both U.S. health care providers and lawn care professionals can breathe a sigh of relief that legislators are lagging behind their northern counterparts. The question is for how long? Discussion over health care is for another article. For this one, the topic focuses on the health of the environment and how lawn care professionals can position themselves to stay viable and profitable in view of attempts to regulate the industry.

It’s Happening at the Local Level

Lawn care providers in Canada have long been waging a well-documented battle, one that has seen several provinces, including Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia, place bans on synthetic chemicals for cosmetic use and dozens of municipalities stepping forward with their own restrictions. The latter gained momentum after court rulings struck down laws that gave federal laws pre-emption over those at the provincial and local levels.

The situation is different in the U.S. where federal regulations usually reign supreme, the key word being “usually”. In recent years, several states have become proactive in attempts to regulate nutrients while municipalities in the Northeast and other areas have increased efforts to ban the use of pesticides in school yards and sports fields.

As explained by Tom Delaney, PLANET’s director of government affairs, nutrient restrictions began in the upper Midwest where states like Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan banned the use of phosphorus. “Regulating nutrients gained momentum when Obama declared the Chesapeake Bay a national treasure,” Delaney relates. “At that point, the discussion went beyond phosphorus to include nitrogen, and caught the attention of governors in the five adjoining states. New York was among the first of those states to call for blackouts, times when fertilizers couldn’t be applied. More recently, New Jersey passed legislation that would restrict nitrogen levels.”

According to Delaney, blackout periods were initially adopted in areas in Florida and in Delaware. Anti-pesticide groups are also beginning to make more noise in an attempt to ban the use of pesticides for cosmetic reasons, as they have succeeded to do in several Canadian municipalities.

As both Delaney and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) president Aaron Hobbs point out, vocal, minority activist groups are spearheading the regulatory initiatives by getting the ear of legislators, and it’s up to the Green Industry to stand up and make itself heard.

“The model in Canada is being imported here with a similar message,” says Hobbs. “But remember, the general public doesn’t share the activists’ agenda. The first step for lawn care professionals is to become aware of what’s going on in their communities and become involved by going to town and city council meetings. Get to know policy makers and become a resource for them. Our industry has something they want and need to make good decisions: expertise.

“Lawn care operators are already doing the right thing with respect to sustainable practices and adopting environmentally sound input technologies, but it’s important they go the extra mile and let their customers and policymakers know it on a regular basis,” Hobbs continues. “Part of communicating and building those relationships is reminding them about the important benefits of the services they are providing.” RISE and PLANET offer talking points and many other resources to help lawn care professionals educate their customers and legislators.

Reducing Your Environmental Impact Through Sustainable Solutions

At this point, no one knows for sure how far municipalities and states will go to regulate the use of lawn care products. But recent legislation in New Jersey that limits the amount of nitrogen in fertilizers, in addition to moves by municipalities in New England, Illinois and New Jersey that have banned the use of pesticides in parks and school yards, are wakeup calls for both material suppliers and service providers. So, too, is legislation in some areas of the country that offers homeowners tax credits for removing lawns.

Forestalling harmful legislation and any attempt to nurture a negative public perception of the industry requires being involved at the community level. Delaney and Hobbs also emphasize how important it is for service providers to continue to follow best management practices to minimize any negative environmental impact. In other words, lawn care professionals can be proactive at the service level by promoting and offering sustainable solutions to customers.

Manufacturers continue to develop tools to help lawn care professionals do just that. Agrium Advanced Technologies, for example, offers a season-long fertilizer that reduces the number of applications from five or six to one or two per year.

“Why fertilize only twice a year?” asks the company’s marketing manager Bryan Gooch. “First, it saves on labor and other operating costs, plus fewer applications reduce the potential for fertilizer runoff. These slow-release technologies enable 25-40% less nitrogen to be used per year, while minimizing periods of excessive growth, which cuts down on mowing and the production of grass clippings.” Lawn care professionals can continue to make property visits to check on turf and provide other services to maintain a revenue steam, Gooch adds. In the meantime, though, they are managing turf in an environmentally responsible way.

The company offers two technological approaches in slow-release and controlled-release fertilizers. “The industry standard for slow-release fertilizers is sulfur-coated urea,” Gooch explains. “Agrium Advanced Technologies’ XCU Slow-Release Fertilizer is the new generation of sulfur-coated urea. XCU is a hybrid of polymer-coated and sulfur-coated urea fertilizer technologies, but delivers many of the benefits of a temperature-controlled diffusion-based polymer-coated fertilizer. Its unique, advanced coating technology provides a more stable front-end release and a gradual release of nutrients.

“Controlled-release fertilizers, like Agrium Advanced Technologies’ Duration CR, have a more precise polymer coating that predictably breaks down as the temperature increases, hence the word ‘controlled’,” Gooch continues. “Duration is available in Agrium Advanced Technologies’ new Spread it & Forget it controlled-release fertilizer.”

Gooch emphasizes that a well-maintained and well-managed lawn has a net positive impact on the environment. A big part of the management equation is not over-fertilizing and/or over-mowing the turf, something that the slow- and controlled-release fertilizers help lawn care professionals minimize.

“For many homeowners and other property owners,” says Mark Long, turf business manager for Engage Agro USA, “the level of sustainability is a lifestyle choice. Some may ask their service providers to employ a practice and materials that have minimal impact on the environment. Others may want a zero-impact approach. In some cases their decision will involve a combination of choices about the materials their lawn care professionals are using.”

Engage Agro USA recently introduced Fiesta Turf Weed Killer into the U.S. market, a product that broadens the choices customers have. Registered and approved for use in Ontario, Canada last spring, this bio-herbicide gives lawn care professionals a way to control tough weeds where cosmetic bans are in place.

“Fiesta will also be a great solution for customers in the U.S. who don’t want their lawn care provider to use a synthetic weed killer,” says Long. “Again, it’s about choices and solutions. For customers who want to maintain a totally sustainable lawn, it would be difficult for their lawn care provider to justify using a synthetic product even though using one in moderation, such as when spot spraying, can be defined as a sustainable practice compared to broadcasting a synthetic control.”

Long notes that Fiesta is made from iron and performs well on broadleaf weeds such as dandelions and clover. “The mode of action for controlling weeds, said simplistically, results from ‘burn down’ of the foliage thereby exhausting the energy stores in the roots,” he explains. “Fiesta should be applied when leaves are present, and two applications are advised three to four weeks apart for best results. People and pets can re-enter a treated area after the leaves have dried.”

Natural alternatives may not have the residual impact that synthetic products have, but remain an option for customers who demand it, according to Adam Manwarren, turf product manager for FMC Professional Solutions. FMC offers a “green” aerosol called Topia insecticide that uses a combination of 25B-exempt ingredients to control insects through contact.

Touting the Benefits of Healthy Turf

What often is left out of discussions about sustainable practices and material is the end product, the actual benefits that a healthy turf provides, Manwarren adds. “Healthy, lush lawns are less susceptible to weeds and insects, not to mention the positive environmental impact they have. The challenge for manufacturers and service providers is to find that sweet spot where new chemistry and technology combine to work toward a sustainable lawn that also delivers optimum benefits for the homeowner.

“Developing and using products that offer lower pounds of active ingredient per treated area is one approach that is gaining in popularity,” Manwarren adds. “This can be accomplished with new active ingredients, but it can also be achieved with new combination products.”

FMC offers single-ingredient and combination products that focus on a molecule called sulfentrazone. The molecule offers speed of control, as well as long-term population control, by stopping weeds from germinating. Long-term population control enhances sustainability.

Manwarren explains, “With this family of products, you may treat a lawn that is 100% infested with weeds one year. The following year, you may have only 30% of the population to control, which means less active ingredient per treated area over time. This level of control also makes the option to use the targeted treatment protocol more attractive, as opposed to broadcast applications.” Manwarren notes that FMC markets several sulfentrazone-based products, including Dismiss, Solitare, Dismiss South, Echelon, and new Blindside herbicides.

“As far as insecticide products, we are always evaluating new technologies,” Manwarren adds. “Recently, we upgraded an industry-standard granular insecticide, Talstar EZ, to a new carrier. This new carrier is exclusive to FMC and features the Verge granule, which is more uniform, virtually dust-free and odorless, and non-staining. It also rapidly disintegrates. Since the granule is more uniform from both a spreadability and load-per-granule perspective, it means applicators will be putting out the right amount of active ingredients per treated area. The fact that it is practically dust-free means more product reaches the treatment area and the applicators wear less product home.”

As stewards of the environment, lawn care professionals and their landscaping counterparts craft and maintain landscapes that are aesthetically appealing and environmentally friendly. Turf grass alone generates an abundance of oxygen, sequesters carbon dioxide, acts a filter, and reduces runoff, among a myriad of other environmental benefits. Yet activists, many of whom support sustainable initiatives, target the industry as environmental offenders, not defenders.

Green Industry members have several options and resources at their disposal to fight back. Among them, they can actively engage their customers, their communities and their legislators in a discussion about the true benefits their services provide. Associations such as RISE and PLANET can supply them with “talking points” and other tools to effectively get their points across. They can also promote and embrace best management practices and offer sustainable solutions to customers. Again, as the above manufacturers point out, the tools are available.

The future of the Green Industry likely hinges on members being proactive on both fronts—as messengers and as environmental managers.