What's in My Spreader?

Back on Earth Day (April 22), a province-wide ban on the cosmetic sale and use of pesticides went into effect in Ontario, Canada. More than 250 products were outlawed, leaving most Canadian lawn care operators with little in their toolboxes to fight weeds and other pests this summer. Now many U.S. contractors are wondering if something similar could end up happening to them.

Several lawn care industry insiders don’t think it will, for two primary reasons. First of all, pre-emption laws with respect to pesticide regulation exist in 41 states, making it difficult for states and localities to enact pesticide bans like the one that just took effect in Ontario. Secondly, Americans generally have a stronger sense of their personal property rights, and do not want the government telling them what they can and cannot use to maintain their private lawns.

That doesn’t mean the lawn care industry should let its guard down. “We know there is activity all the time to get a state to contemplate some kind of restriction or ban on pesticides,” says Karen Reardon, director of communications for the Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE, pestfacts.org).

“The United States is starting to see a movement toward pesticide bans that’s very similar to what we saw in Canada: at the municipal and school level,” adds Jennifer Lemcke, COO of Weed Man (weedmanusa.com). “That’s how the activists get in there and start putting doubt in people’s minds. They build their case slowly and gain momentum.”

A lesson from Canada

Canadian-based Weed Man is a network of locally owned and operated lawn care franchises in Canada and the United States. Technical coordinator Chris Lemcke says the primary reason consumers went along with the Ontario pesticide ban was fear resulting from misinformation.

“Once you start trying to argue safety and science, especially at the municipal level, it’s lost,” Chris Lemcke says. “These people (municipal legislators) typically do not understand toxicology or how these lawn care products work. When a city counselor who wants to get re-elected has activists at his doorstep every day saying, ‘If you don’t vote to ban pesticides you’re saying you don’t care if people get cancer,’ how can you blame him?”

According to Reardon, one of the critical factors in Canada has been the fact that activist groups were able to coin the term “cosmetic use.” “This gave the activists a rallying cry,” Reardon says. “The public was convinced over time that products deemed ‘cosmetic’ were unnecessary and had no value. Also, we found that there wasn’t much public outcry because it would be hard for a consumer to speak out against the ban since the Canadian Cancer Society was heavily involved.”

Another factor in Canada simply has to do with the populace. “The population density is quite concentrated, and when that’s the case there’s a tendency to be much more vocal on certain issues,” says Phil Catron, president of NaturaLawn of America (nl-amer.com). “Coupled with that you have the fact that Canadian people have grown up in a much more socialistic society.”

Increased scrutiny in the U.S.

Catron is one of an increasing number of people in the lawn and landscape industry who is concerned about the United States heading more in the direction of socialism. “I hope this socialistic trend gets squashed,” Catron says. “If it (pesticide ban) were done the way it’s being done in Canada, I think it’s wrong. You can get to that point without legislation. NaturaLawn of America is living proof that it can happen by creating demand through consumer education.”

Research has told TruGreen that a growing number of consumers do want more environmentally responsible options when it comes to lawn care. While the company has offered an organic lawn care service for years, TruGreen has decided to go even greener this year with the debut of Targeted Lawn Care (TLC)—which is being tested in 38 markets across 16 states.

“TLC is a common-sense approach to caring for your lawn,” says Dr. Kirk Hurto, vice president of technical services for TruGreen. “Our programs are designed to be environmentally responsible, and TruGreen’s professionally trained route managers make certain that our products stay on lawns and out of waterways. We’re committed to reducing the use of pesticides, and our specialized TLC delivery system helps ensure this reduction goal while still providing effective results.” TruGreen’s dual-line delivery system allows technicians to apply weed control “as needed” while they fertilize a lawn.

That type of highly targeted weed and pest control is an important point that should be communicated to customers. “It’s vitally important to engage your customers and explain that you’re not just showing up and doing some broadcast,” Reardon adds. “It’s a controlled and targeted application to kill a pest, fungus or whatever. There is a real benefit to that.”

Natural lawn care advocates still see a strong possibility for increased public support to ban cosmetic pesticides in the U.S. “However, I expect that the market will shift long before legislation has passed,” says Doug Wood, director of professional education for Grassroots Environmental Education. “The pressure will come from the same two groups that have been active in Canada: the mothers of young children, and those who are leading the movement to make communities green. The good news is that there are viable alternatives.”

Something that is already gaining momentum is the scrutiny of phosphorus. In mid-April, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle signed a statewide bill banning the sale and use of lawn fertilizers that contain phosphorus, with the exceptions being new lawns or lawns that are deemed phosphorus-deficient after a soil test is conducted. The state of Minnesota passed a similar bill in 2005.

Around the same time Wisconsin was banning phosphorus, Michigan’s Saginaw County joined Bay County in doing the same. Annapolis, MD, had passed a similar bill last year that went into effect January 1. According to Tom Delaney, director of government affairs for PLANET (landcarenetwork.org), several additional states currently have phosphorus bans up for debate, including New York, Iowa, Illinois, New Jersey and Washington.

Excess phosphorus in water can spur increased algae growth. “Algae bloom is very visible, so phosphorus is an easy target,” Delaney points out. “Some states are also starting to look at nitrogen. But right now the spotlight is on phosphorus, and when most people think phosphorus, they think lawn fertilizer.”

The thing is, Delaney says, phosphorus/fertilizer bans often do little to thwart algae bloom, as has been the case in Minnesota. “So we’ll see how it all unfolds in Wisconsin,” he muses.

Furthermore, legislators sometimes fail to anticipate the unintended consequences of a fertilizer ban or ordinance. The University of Florida IFAS Extension published a report in March discussing this very subject. For instance, one regulatory approach has been “black-out periods” where certain fertilizers cannot be applied during certain timeframes, such as during the summer rainy period from June 1 through September 30.

The reasoning behind these black-out periods is concern over runoff and leaching during frequent, heavy rainfalls. A possible unintended consequence, however, is a decline in turfgrass vigor that potentially leads to increased leaching of nutrients during the summer, and of fertilizer applied after the black-out period. Another possible unintended consequence is the loading-up of fertilizer prior to the black-out period, which could result in considerable runoff and leaching before the turfgrass has had time to take up all the nutrients.

Education & organization

Whether it’s a phosphorus ordinance or pesticide ban, or simply a heightened curiosity over organic-based lawn care practices within your market area, today’s lawn care operators must educate themselves—and share that knowledge with their customers.

“When the industry talks about ‘grassroots,’ the focus is typically on contractors,” Delaney says. “It must go beyond that. Contractors must educate their customers and encourage them to also get involved. If the customer isn’t watering and mowing properly, the landscape maintenance contractor may have to put down even more chemicals. Both the contractor and his customer have a responsibility, and it’s really a partnership.

“When a local government is trying to affect our ability to care for a property, which could ultimately result in a property losing value or a customer having to spend more money in the long-run, we have to help consumers come to understand whether it’s a truly environmental piece of legislation or just a political, feel-good thing. There is a big difference between good science and pure politics.

“We need a good network of green industry professionals at the local level that’s reading the newspapers and Internet, and attending city council meetings. And when the local government isn’t listening, it’s time to mobilize that customer base.”

“Get with your local- and state-elected officials,” Reardon recommends. “If every green industry business owner can forge relationships like this, positioning themselves as a good source of information and a valued employer in the community, it could really help close the gap and prevent these types of policies from even being introduced.”