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The Natural Thing to Do

Why you can't afford to thumb your nose at the organic lawn care crowd anymore
By Ron Hall



DESIGN BY GREG GARCEAU.
"Whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together." - Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726

Before launching into the reasons why you should add organic products to your lawn care program let's start with a caveat - the multi-application service based on using synthetic fertilizers isn't going away. Not in the foreseeable future. It consistently delivers green and attractive lawns and numbers millions of satisfied customers

Now here's why you're being foolish for not, at least, investigating organic turf care. That's whether you're a hard-core traditionalist or not. The main reason is that a percentage of customers within any market wants it. This percentage varies from region to region, but, from all indications, it's steadily growing. That's the financial reason and why you're in business, right?

Then there are regulatory and environmental reasons, which are often linked. Various regions of the country have passed strict limits on applications of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers, but still allow the use of slow-release organics.

Critics (including some former users) point to the higher cost of organic products, which have to be passed on to clients, and also to inconsistent results. Even confirmed organic users concede that putting together an organic program that delivers consistent and satisfactory results requires a measure of research and experimentation. Ultimately, they say the results, in terms of building the health of clients' soils and reducing weed and disease pressure, are well worth it.

Results matter the most

"We wouldn't still be in business and we wouldn't be here if our products didn't work. In fact, that resonates as much with our customers as our being green," says Brad Wolfe, speaking of the organic lawn care company he runs in Colorado.

Wolfe stresses that, above all else, customers want green, weed-free lawns, and if you can provide that with organic, soil-enriching fertilizers at an acceptable price, you'll earn an enviable position in whatever market you're serving. Indeed, Organo-Lawn, which Wolfe founded in 1997 soon after earning a degree at the University of Colorado, is proof that it can be done. His company with 15 trucks is one of the largest lawn service companies in Boulder and also has a presence in Ft. Collins, Wolfe's hometown.

"Basically, what we're doing is building healthier, living soils. Once you understand and can deliver services to do that, it all starts to fall into place," says Wolfe.

Organo-Lawn's success puts to the lie the widely held belief that only about 5 to 10 percent of homeowners buying professional lawn care services will choose an organic program. That said, Wolfe's firm does, on request, use products such as Drive XLR8, Quicksilver and Tenacity herbicides to get lawns under control when one of its several natural products won't work quickly enough. Once lawns are under control, Wolfe says the use of his firm's unique blended organic fertilizers ("Super Tea" and a 6-2-2 derived from corn gluten meal, bone meal, sulfate of potash and molasses) delights customers by fostering turf health and beauty because they promote beneficial microbial activity and greatly reduce weed and disease pressure.

"We've been much busier this fall than expected," says Wolfe, speaking in mid-October. "In fact, we've been a bit overwhelmed. It's a good problem to have."

Don't ignore the 10 percent

Historically, lawn application companies offering both traditional and organic services find that no more than 10 percent of their customers go the organic route. The main drawbacks to organics seem to be their slightly higher price and results - in particular speed of results.


Organo-Lawn President Brad Wolfe says results mean everything in providing professional lawn care. If you can deliver them with organics you win. If not, you lose.
PHOTO COURTESY ORGANO-LAWN

But with more than 45,000 households in his market, even attracting just 10 percent of them would make any business owner grin, says Mark Miles, founder and owner of St. Paul, Minn.-based Green Guardian. While he hasn't been able to achieve that lofty goal (only a percentage of homeowners take any form of professional lawn care), he's managed to carve out a strong presence in his market. Indeed, Miles says that his firm's organic message and the results it achieves on clients' lawns attract higher-end customers willing to pay more for nice lawns.

"We treat a lot of very nice properties," he says, typically billing more than $400 per customer (6,000 square feet of lawn) annually.

Miles, who farmed and began experimenting with various plant-based nutritional and pest control ingredients as a student at North Dakota State University, describes himself as a "lifelong inventor." That curiosity has led him to come up a range of products with benefits beyond keeping grass green and healthy. For example, he says one of his turf products also does a great job of keeping bears and moose off of golf courses in Montana. "It makes them sneeze like crazy," says Miles. "It's difficult to explain how I got to where I am."


Standards under construction?

Who defines organic lawn care? There are no widely recognized standards in the United States or in Canada. Nor are there any generally agreed upon marketing or advertising guidelines when it comes to promoting organic turf care services in North America.

By contrast the USDA defines sustainable agriculture, and guidelines offered up in the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990 define organic foods as foods produced using methods that do not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. It's not a big leap, therefore, to apply a very similar definition to organic lawn care. According to Spring Green Lawn Care, it's "a whole system approach lawn and yard care without using chemicals or synthetic materials."

The closest the lawn application industry industry comes to standards for organic lawn care are being promoted by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), whose membership is primarily, but not exclusively, in New England. The publication "NOFA Standards for Organic Land Care" offers these points concerning organic lawns and turf:

- No synthetic pesticides;

- No synthetic fertilizers;

- No genetically engineered organisms;

- Reducing the potential for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution by limiting the amount of organic fertilizers

- Using good cultural practices to encourage the growth of healthy grass and reduce the need for irrigation and other inputs;

- Increasing diversity of plant cultivars and species where appropriate and depending on how the lawn will be used and the standards of the client.


Organo-Lawn, based in Boulder, Colo., proves that a company that markets and delivers a quality organic-based lawn service can become a market leader.
PHOTO COURTESY ORGANO-LAWN.

NOFA offers accreditation for sustainable lawn care practices. Jenna Messier, director of land care programs, says that, to date, more than 500 lawn care pros in 20 states have earned accreditation through NOFA's accreditation course. Previously the program involved five days of instruction. That's being shortened to four days, says Messier.

Recently, receiving funds from the Long Island Sound Futures Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Service, NOFA announced two one-day Organic Lawn Care Certificate courses in 2013, January 24 in Manchester, Conn., and February 26, Norwich, Conn. Details about the accreditation process and the workshops can be found at .

Oregon Tilth (tilth.org) and The Society for Organic Urban Land Care (SOUL), based in Victoria, B.C. (organiclandcare.org), have developed similar standards for organic land care standards and also offer accreditation programs.

But these efforts are (to this point anyway) mostly regional, and organic service providers are pretty much free to choose products and market as they see fit.


The Holganix team, including VP Dave Thompson, left, and CEO Barrett Ersek, were delighted by the interest that their organic turf nutrient products attracted at the recent GIE+EXPO.
PHOTO BY RON HALL.

Growing with organics

Andrew Gabries, owner of Go Green Lawn Services, Thornton, Pa., is a smart and ambitious young man who trusts his own instincts when it comes to running a company.

Little wonder that he hitched his company's success on delivering organic services. More accurately, he describes his firm's lawn treatment services as a "hybrid" program as it also involves the use of pesticides in initially getting tough lawns under control. In all cases, however, he says, turf fertilization is based on the use of Holganix, a plant-based organic stimulant that uses microbes and enzymes to enhance the efficiency of even small amounts of fertilizer.

"It has helped us differentiate ourselves from the competition," says Gabries of the use of the food-grade, organic product.

Go Green Lawn Services, operating in Delaware and surrounding counties near Philadelphia, offers customers four applications per year with company techs performing three separate services on each stop.

PLANET Offers Definitions


The Professional Landcare Network, whose 3,000-plus members include lawn care companies that provide both traditional and organic services (predominately traditional), acknowledges the confusion surrounding the use of terms such as organic and natural and offers the following definitions:

Natural: A product substantially derived from animal/biological, mineral or plant sources in form as it occurs in nature. The materials may be altered or manipulated to put them in a physical form that allows them to be efficiently used in the application process by homeowners or service providers.

Organic: Technically, any substance containing carbon is organic. Both naturally occurring and man-made products may be organic. The common misconception that "organic" and "natural" have the same meaning may cause non-technical consumers to believe that man-made organic material is natural when it is not.

Natural-based: This term is generally used to describe a mixture of materials that includes some materials that may be properly described as natural. The portion that is natural is frequently undefined. The other portion may be man-made pesticides or fertilizers.

Organic-based: This term is generally used to describe a mixture of materials that includes some organic materials. The portion of the product that is both organic and natural is frequently undefined. The other portion may be manmade pesticides or fertilizers.

"Some of the yards we get are tougher to treat than others, and the first year is always the toughest," he says. "But once we improve the health of the soil on these yards it's much easier to control everything." Gabries, who earned a degree in landscape contracting at Penn State University and also runs a successful landscape company, says the four-application schedule helps keep travel and labor costs down. Also, he says he can dramatically reduce amount of fertilizer and pesticides he uses on lawns after getting them on a Holganix program. These cost savings offset the higher price of the organic product.

This past year, Gabries implemented the Real Green customer contact and management system that he's confident, along with its compelling organic marketing message, will help him more than double his lawn care customer base to 2,000 clients next season.

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine and has been reporting on the landscape/lawn service industry for more than 28 years. Contact him at rhall@mooserivermedia.com.