Turf Magazine - September, 2011
Keeping it Green: Consternation and Optimism
Just about any green industry contractor could crow about their success five or six years ago. That easy-money era is over. Nothing approaching another credit-fueled boom seems likely again within our lifetimes.
In hindsight, of course, it's easy to understand why that brief period in mid-decade was an anomaly. Why the party couldn't go on.
We now offer our services within an uncertain and constrained economy. It's the most challenging I've seen in the 27-plus years I've been reporting on the green industries.
Could it get worse? Well, yes that's possible. That concerns me.
In spite of this, I'm absolutely convinced the industry still offers great opportunity. This is as true for startups as for established companies.
For starters, tens of millions of property owners and managers now consider our services and products essential (or nearly so) rather than discretionary. This is certainly truer now than it was following previous economic crises in the early 1980s and 1990s, when our services and the value they provide were less well recognized.
And, unlike the major economic hiccups of 30 and 20 years ago, a lot more consumers are going to be counting on us, especially in the residential sector. Every day another 10,000 Baby Boomers reach the age of 65. That's going to continue for the next 19 years, according to demographers.
As the Boomers donate their mowers, rakes, spreaders and snow shovels to Goodwill (after attempting to get rid of them in yard sales), we'll be there to serve their do-it-for-me lifestyle.
Yes, I'm genuinely confident of the future of our green industry. This is how I see the services we offer and their short term (1 to 3 years) prospects.
This is the largest revenue-producing segment of landscape contracting. It's also the most competitive. Companies that previously specialized in design, construction and installation have added or are attempting to increase contracted seasonal property maintenance services.
Also, each spring brings more start-ups. Some survive and secure a tiny share of their market. Most come and go. They learn that hard work and hope aren't enough of a foundation for a successful maintenance business.
Yes, it's a tough business, but a good business. While equipment, fuel and labor costs keep rising, and customers have lots of service providers to choose from, tightly managed, systems-driven companies remain profitable and continue to grow. This is especially true for those adept at marketing, selling and delivering value-added enhancements to clients' properties.
This sector will continue to lag. When will it rebound? Not anytime soon. Landscape makeovers are taking up some of the slack. Also HOAs and large commercial customers are becoming increasingly receptive to designs and renovations that reduce maintenance costs and conserve resources. Generally, they're seeking an ROI within approximately five years.
Another trend that's building is "green" landscapes, as if landscapes, in general, aren't green. If you're not offering green roofs, bioswales, rain gardens, native plants and hardscape materials such as permeable pavement and concrete, you're missing the fastest-growing industry trend.
Lawn fertilization/weed control has been less affected by the economy than most other landscape services. The modest cost of professional lawn care contributes to its continuing popularity.
But, not all is sunshine and bluebirds for this segment of services. Antipesticide activists are vocal, and they're persistent. Don't discount their ability to damage the lawn care business. Just look north. Canada is riddled with a confusing array of laws restricting common weed and turf insect control products because of their efforts. These laws vary from region to region. They make it incredibly difficult for lawn care business owners to do business. The financial toll on the industry there has been incredible.
And yes, it can happen in the United States.
The future and vitality of the U.S. lawn care industry is heavily dependent upon the protective efforts of industry associations, such as PLANET, and the success of Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), its lobbying umbrella.
We urge individual owners to become involved in local, regional and statewide efforts to protect the industry against unnecessary regulatory activity.
Millions of property owners count on irrigation to protect the investment they've made in their lawns and valuable ornamentals and trees. They consider irrigation to be a wise investment. Unfortunately, many systems were poorly designed or installed, if not outdated. Many were installed more than a decade ago and are just clocks. They turn on and off, regardless of conditions. That's unacceptable in light of the growing realization of water's true value.
Irrigation technology is racing ahead of implementation. The green industry is trying to catch up. All green industry contractors must familiarize themselves with this new technology and respond appropriately to the landscape water use issues in their markets.
Agree or disagree, please share your thoughts with us and with our readers. You're the people out there on the front lines.
To comment, contact Ron at