Sparking Acceptance of Organic Lawn Care
Entrepreneur positions Firebelly Organic Lawn Care to be a leader in a growing market
Tom Kelly partnered with Natural Technologies to form its three divisions: BeeSafe, Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care and the Organic Lawn Care Institute.
If ambition, drive, resourcefulness and knowledge are the characteristics needed in becoming a successful entrepreneur and businessman, Tom Kelly fits the bill. Kelly is the vice president of Natural Technologies, Inc. and its three divisions: BeeSafe, a dealer network of professional land care providers; Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care, a six-step natural, organic lawn care program in a box; and OLCI (Organic Lawn Care Institute), a state-licensed post-secondary vocational school designed to train professionals in turf care and applications.
The BeeSafe logo on service vehicles reinforces the firm's environmentally friendly message.
Photos courtesy of Natural Technologies, Inc.
Kelly is obviously a whirlwind of activity and a marketing guru for the organization. He has a goal of turning half the lawns in North America into organic care properties by 2018 through a campaign called, "Safe Green Lawns for a Better Tomorrow."
Essentially, Kelly has carved out a niche in the marketplace that he feels will expand exponentially in the upcoming years and is doing his part to make it happen by offering the BeeSafe, four-step, six-step or eight-step organic application processes to lawn care companies for both residential and commercial use. While it is estimated that only about 3 percent of the lawn care application market is organic, Kelly says that this fraction is rapidly growing.
Through their BeeSafe network they tailor each application to climate, geographic attributes, soil and turf type.
"We adjust to whether we are dealing with warm-season or cool-season turfgrass. Warm-season grass wants to be fertilized all summer long while cool-season grass wants to be fertilized to coincide with its genetically programmed growth habits, which are in spring and fall. We analyze whether we are dealing with sandy loam in the Northeast or are we dealing with red clay in Georgia or with sand in South Carolina. We customize our inputs to get the best possible results from the situation we are dealing with."
The company, based in Auburn, N.H., also packages a six-step organic lawn feeding application to homeowners through a national dealer distribution network. The program features organic fertilizers and natural pesticide products.
A learning process
After graduating from Syracuse University in 1993, Kelly served as a lawn technician with Barefoot Grass where he worked his way up to a branch manager's position. A few years later he and two partners started Lawn Dawg in Hudson, N.H., and were very successful growing their chemical lawn care application business. Kelly sold his interests in Lawn Dawg in 2009. Lawn Dawg remains one of the premiere lawn care companies in New England.
Fans expect green and weed free baseball fields, which is what they see on this Minor League field treated with organics.
Kelly began studying the science behind organic lawn care products and used that knowledge to found Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care, where he concentrated on perfecting the organic materials to advance his all-natural process. After national exposure on the ABC "Good Morning America" and other venues, Kelly partnered with Natural Technologies in 2011 resulting in the formation of the company's three divisions.
The self-described "environmentalist in progress" has studied the ecological issues and evaluated the results of his processes and is convinced that even established weeds can be better controlled with his organic products.
"I totally disagree with the statement that organic pesticides and fertilizers are not very effective against established weeds," insists Kelly. "I believe it's actually the polar opposite."
He points out that this growing season, weeds and crabgrass were rampant and the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that chemical applications are reducing the health of rootzone by sterilizing the soil and creating resistance allowing the spread of weeds.
"Not to mention the blatant overuse of water soluble fertilizer which is creating multiple generations of crabgrass and pushing weed growth more than pushing turf growth. The BeeSafe Organic Lawns don't have any more weeds or crabgrass than do any chemical lawns," he claims. Kelly explains that their process begins with an analysis of what is needed to nurture the soil.
Tom Kelly, who found success in traditional lawn care, now describes himself as "an environmentalist in progress."
Stimulating the good microbes
"The goal of organic lawn care is to stimulate the biological activity in the soil. Our products feed the soil through the introduction of select beneficial microbial species allowing them to facilitate the natural processes inherent to healthy plant growth," he explains. "Diverse consortiums of bacteria and fungi will not only stimulate the indigenous species of microbes in the soil, but we have also proven that applying this active microbial solution will increase biological activity in the soil 100 fold."
Soil preparation includes annual core aeration, overseeding and pH adjustments. Kelly continues, "Obviously, these steps are essential to provide an avenue for water, nutrients and oxygen to get to the rootzone thus helping the soil food web to flourish."
While it's estimated that only about 3 percent of the lawn care market is stricly organic, Tom Kelly is convinced the percentage will keep growing.
Kelly says that Bee-Safe has a consistent five-principle approach to educate lawn care applicators in building the soil and rootzone, which is vital for organic turf. The five principles are:
1. Bio-nutrition includes advancing strands of bacteria and fungi, which reproduce creating a healthy soil and building drought, heat and foot-traffic resistance.
2. Natural sources of developing macro and micro nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium and essential micronutrients.
3. Use of bio-stimulants utilizing amino acids, vitamins, Alginates (brown seaweed) to build organic matter and increase root-mass to allow absorption of nutrients and water.
4. Chemical-free pest management occurs because the soil and turf are maximizing nutrient intake and are not exposed to an overabundance of chemicals that they don't need, eliminating excess feeding and waste and allowing the organic processes to be achieved at a price comparable to chemical applications.
5. Information and Education wherein, BeeSafe offers clients and sports turf managers an extensive program through their OLCI training of authorized dealers and turf students about the biology involved in the organic process, advancing information in reducing chemical input on sports turfgrass that includes the company's overview on future R&D.
"We have successfully transitioned Hadlock Field, home of the Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox, AA affiliate) to be completely chemical-free. It's the first professional baseball stadium to do so in the country, and I'll put it up against Fenway any day." OLCI also provides a healthy student discount to returning veterans who would like to enter the industry.
The turfgrass at Haddock Field, home field of the Portland (Maine) Seadogs, affiliate of the Boston Sox, is chemical-free.
The company also provides quotes through an online program MyLawnQuote (http://www.mylawnquote.com) for their organic applicators and business partners to provide real-time and instant estimates to potential customers.
Kelly is a busy guy, promoting three divisions in a growing company while projecting growth of an additional 200 distributors and lawn care applicators by spring 2014. He enjoys the work and truly believes in the BeeSafe natural approach and the firm's OLCI training affiliate to provide an all-organic option to lawn care.
"I've traveled this road before, having built Lawn Dawg and then Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care. So, I don't think that there are really any surprises this time around. I started Lawn Dawg in 1997, started Fire Belly Organic Lawn Care in 2009 and launched BeeSafe in 2011. While the challenges have been different, as a result of the way times have changed, one constant is always true: it's going to take more work than you think it will.
"Planning is literally the most important thing that goes along with starting and running a business. It's a requirement that you have a plan, not only in regards to sales and production but cash flow and operations, too. If you don't know where you are, in regards to your plan in any given moment, you are literally lost. What's measured is managed and you need goals to be sure you are hitting them."
Big aspirations and big expectations for a growing company and a vice president, who believes in himself and his company's natural approach to lawn care and technical education.
Mike Ingles is an experienced writer, communicator a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.