Florida moves to regulate fertilizer applicators

Dr. Laurie Trenholm oversees the best management practices training for those in the lawn and landscape industry. In addition to fertilizer application, the six-and-a-half-hour classes also include education about proper irrigation, cultural practices, plant selection and other related topics.

Pesticide licensing, itself once a novel concept, has become an accepted and integrated part of doing business for those working in the green industry. Now, Florida is following a similar path, requiring training and licensing for those professionals who apply fertilizers in urban landscape settings.

The process began nearly a decade ago, when growing scientific evidence showed the dangers posed by improper fertilizer use (rapid growth of algae in water bodies from excess phosphorus and dangerous nitrate contamination of drinking water, to name just a few). In 2000, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enact best management practices (BMPs) to reduce non-source-point pollution. That’s when the DEP, along with representatives from the green industry and the University of Florida, got together to develop BMPs for the landscape industry.

“We developed a manual and an educational program to go with it. The University of Florida IFAS Extension was the primary partner in delivering the educational programming to the industry, with funding from DEP,” says Dr. Laurie Trenholm, who has served as manager of the program since 2003. “We work with county extension agents around the state who deliver the program to their audience.”

Those BMPs and the associated training encompass a wide range of landscaping practices, from proper irrigation to plant selection to cultural practices, but there is a definite focus on the issue of fertilizers, which Trenholm says is a hot topic given the attention surrounding pollution from fertilizers. “Until fairly recently, the BMP program was completely voluntary, so attendance was fairly sparse; people used it to fulfill CEU requirements. But, about three years ago, some cities and counties in Florida began to pass fertilizer ordinances that regulated the commercial industry supplying fertilizer,” she explains. “They governed when they could apply fertilizer, what sources they could use, how far from water bodies they could be and many other stipulations.”

Under a new state law in Florida, anyone in the landscape industry who applies fertilizer will need to successfully complete the University of Florida IFAS Extension’s Best Management Practices program and obtain a fertilizer applicator’s license.

Because the local ordinances varied-even between neighboring cities in the same county, for example-lawn and landscape professionals were faced with a complex maze of regulations. Thus, the fertilizer-related information covered in the BMPs training became all the more valuable. “Many of the local ordinances also required that those applying fertilizer had the BMP education,” Trenholm explains. Naturally, in those areas of the state, attendance at the BMP training rose significantly.

Now, the program is poised to expand even more dramatically. The Florida legislature recently passed a law that addresses fertilizer application on a statewide basis. “One of the stipulations in the bill is that anyone applying fertilizer commercially in Florida will need to have the BMP certificate of completion,” says Trenholm. “Then, they will have to go to the Florida Department of Agriculture to get a fertilizer license, which will then need to be maintained with CEUs, just like a pesticide license.” The fertilizer license will need to be renewed every three years.

The Florida legislature provided a four-plus-year window for the industry to adjust, with the new requirements becoming mandatory on January 1, 2014. The training is required not just for foremen or managers, but for anyone who applies fertilizer-that covers a lot of landscape employees across the state.

Not surprisingly, Trenholm says attendance at the BMP trainings has already picked up noticeably. “We’re working hard to make sure that we have enough certified trainers for the program, and we have training for them, as well,” she explains. With the training soon to be mandated, it’s important to increase the number of people who can conduct those trainings. In addition to extension personnel in every county across the state, some landscapers are becoming certified trainers. “Our goal isn’t to make everyone in the industry a trainer, but to certify enough people so that it’s feasible to get all the thousands of people trained,” she adds.

A new component has been added to the BMP trainings that focuses specifically on fertilizers. “It provides information about different nitrogen sources, a little about phosphorus, etc.,” says Trenholm. “In order to reduce nutrient leaching or runoff—and we’re concerned with both nitrogen and phosphorus—you have to do things like apply at the recommended rates, not fertilize when there are heavy rainstorms, not fertilize newly sodded turf, not fertilize in north or central Florida during the winter months and so on.” Participants also learn about the damage that nitrogen and phosphorus can do if they get into a water body or the water table.

The BMP trainings last about six and a half hours, beginning with a “pretest” and ending with a “posttest” to help the trainers assess the increase in knowledge over the course of the day. To obtain a certificate of completion (which is what the new state law requires beginning in 2014), participants need to achieve a minimum score of 75 on the posttest. “We have a pretty good pass rate; it’s not 100 percent, but it’s pretty good,” says Trenholm.

Through the trainings, it’s become evident that the dangers posed by improper application of fertilizers are not always as recognized as those associated with the misuse of pesticides. “Many people who have gone through the program were totally unaware that fertilizers can cause problems environmentally, and they’re also sometimes unaware of the physiological problems that under or overfertilization can cause [in plant health],” says Trenholm. “With this program, there’s been a large increase in the level of knowledge. People take quite a bit away from it.”

Part of the challenge is to cut through the notion that more fertilizer is better, which seems to be a too-common approach. As Trenholm delicately puts it, “There’s a sense among many people in the training, when we go over fertilizer calculations that, perhaps, once or twice, they may have overapplied in the past.” The training also explains the need for correct levels of irrigation in preventing fertilizer leaching and runoff.

Unfortunately, the new statewide fertilizer law does not supersede the jumble of local ordinances and regulations. For example, Trenholm points out, in Sarasota County there is a county fertilizer ordinance and then three cities within the county have their own ordinances, each varying slightly. “There were a number of local governments that were taking a wait-and-see approach, and the new state law will probably put an end to any new local regulations,” she says.

Landscapers can contact their local extension office for more information about the BMP trainings scheduled in their area, or, for a list of upcoming trainings statewide, visit http://fyn.ifas.ufl.edu/professionals/bmp_training_schedule.htm. Before long, that training will be mandatory in Florida, and perhaps other states will follow that model. “I think many states are watching us,” says Trenholm. “There have been other rules passed elsewhere, but I think Florida is on the leading edge with a fertilizer license and the training,” says Trenholm.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.