Environmental Steward and Role Model

“Sustainable” and “environmentally friendly” are more than buzzwords for Kevin Trotta. They’re practical applications of the turfgrass and landscape plant management he puts to work daily as head groundskeeper for the North Rockland Central School District based in Garnerville, N.Y. He and his staff maintain 46 playing fields and 300 acres of grounds for the 10 school sites spread across Rockland County.

Kevin Trotta, the IPM guy and GSA New York Team captain, puts into practice his 10 Commandments of Environmental Turf Craft.

With five elementary schools, three middle schools, Fieldstone Secondary School (8th and 9th grade) and North Rockland High School, the needs of each site vary, as do the soils and other factors at each site. That’s just the kind of challenge that Trotta savors. He’s not only dedicated to providing the best possible conditions for every inch of that green space, he’s also committed to doing so through a program he’s truly passionate about: integrated pest management (IPM).

Trotta describes IPM as “a holistic program based on preventing problems.” He often explains it using the analogy of the wellness approach to human health promoted by today’s medical community. Keeping the human body healthy through preventive measures, such as proper diet and exercise, makes it less susceptible to disease. He says, “It’s the same with IPM. If you follow practices that encourage healthy plants, you don’t need to write many ‘prescriptions’ for chemical controls.”  

The North Rockland High School Environment Club and faculty members join the BEAT sponsors for roadway cleanup as part of the Great American Cleanup.

He’s continually adjusted his grounds management program in his 20-plus years at the school district. He draws on his educational background—with a bachelor’s degree in landscape horticulture from the State University of New York and a master’s degree in environmental studies from City College of New York. He keeps up to date on the newest technology; networks with others in the green industry; and conducts his own research to test results under the conditions at his sites. What has evolved during these years is a hybrid program that integrates IPM with environmental Best Management Practices (BMPs) and incorporates selected organic methods, a program that Trotta calls Environmental Turf Craft. He says, “If you’re willing to sort through the folklore and witchcraft embellishments in organic methods, you can find usable techniques and valid science.” His objective is to strike a balance between the environmental benefits of turfgrass and the potential for negative impacts. He says, “Environmental Turf Craft is basically an effort to reconcile turfgrass management and environmental stewardship.”

What could be “greener” than grass?

Recent years have seen the mainstreaming of environmental issues, and people are beginning to rethink how turfgrass is managed. A recent survey from the National Gardening Association showed that nine out of 10 households believe it is important to manage lawns and gardens in an environmentally friendly way.

Trotta believes that the turfgrass industry has been a victim of misinformation and propaganda from special interest groups with extreme positions, both left and right.

Spreading the word

Trotta has been proactive in teaching these Environmental Turf Craft principles to others in the green industry, speaking at numerous conferences across the state, region and nation. He received the Excellence in IPM Award in 2004 from the New York State Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program, part of Cornell Cooperative Extension. He was named the 2006 Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association’s Environmental Communicator of the Year for his work in getting out the word about environmental stewardship.

It doesn’t stop there. Trotta says, “Protecting our environment is not lost on those of us outside working in those green spaces every day. We’ve let the extreme left and the extreme right control the dialogue, those sitting behind desks telling what should be our story. We need to be more visible as the true stewards of the environment. We are facing some serious challenges as a nation and seeing some pretty rocky fiscal times. Our survival as an industry may depend on the public’s perception of our role. Mankind has finally recognized its need for green space and will continue to incorporate and expand on it in land use planning. We’ll need a common understanding that we are the stewards of those green spaces, dedicated to developing, restoring, conserving and protecting them as the indispensable resources that they are. We become not an environmental problem, but part of the solution.”

Seeking a wider arena in which to spread the word, Trotta learned of a movement begun by a Japanese scientist, businessman and environmental activist named Dr. Tatsuo Okada in 1999. Dr. Okada realized not everyone cares about the health of the environment, but just about everyone can relate to sports and outdoor recreation. To introduce some of the environmental concepts through the world of sports, he formed the Global Sports Alliance (GSA). That movement has spread across the world, with GSA USA an active part of it. Participants, called ecoplayers, organize into teams working under a team captain to connect groups to work together on projects promoting environmental awareness and action. The Ecoflag is posted during these projects to signify the teams’ involvement and the cooperative spirit of its goals.

Trotta says, “As a turf guy, passionate about sports, I saw my niche. That’s what attracted me to GSA. Now, I’m team captain for GSA New York and an ecoplayer in the worldwide arena.”

Just one of the many projects the Trotta team has helped organize was the second annual Basic Environmental Awareness Training (BEAT) held at the North Rockland Central School District’s Fieldstone Secondary School in April 2008. Fellow GSA Team Member and Fieldstone Teacher Dan Sullivan reports, “This event consists of a series of activities designed to raise awareness and foster activism among students and staff in anticipation of Earth Day. The program brings together many diverse groups in both the school and the community at large. GSA-New York assisted with the event and helped in linking the school district to the National Environmental Education Week campaign … the following organizations and agencies teamed up to sponsor the training that presented eight separate activities for more than 200 FSS students: Keep Rockland Beautiful, a chapter of Keep America Beautiful; Fieldstone faculty volunteers; the School District Buildings and Grounds Department; Cornell University Cooperative Extension—Rockland County; and the Town of Haverstraw Police Department.

“These groups reconvened on April 18 and were joined by the North Rockland High School Environment Club and faculty members for a cleanup effort along roadways in Thiells, N.Y., as part of the Great American Cleanup. The synergies created by the cooperation and interaction of these groups point the way to new possibilities for future efforts on behalf of environmental causes.”

There are many more projects on Trotta’s agenda, connecting his team statewide, nationally and internationally. He says, “Our industry is represented by the classic work ethic. We can use that to communicate our message. Anyone can volunteer. People working to improve and protect the environment need the help and might benefit from the expertise we can bring to a project. Volunteering provides an opportunity to roll up our sleeves in the spirit of teamwork. And, a very pleasant consequence is it helps others know who we are—our professionalism and integrity.

“Through my volunteer efforts with GSA, I get to challenge the Hudson Valley environmental community’s perception of what a turf guy is. We get to explore the many things we have in common and the concerns we share. We’re working toward consensus and collaboration rather than conflict. We’re tearing down walls and building bridges. It’s time to do that.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm located in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Kevin Trotta’s 10 Commandments of Environmental Turf Craft

Today’s turf manager is fast becoming a fine craftsman, practicing this kind of art informed by science. Environmental Turf Craft is doing things right as well as doing the right things.

It is the standard operating procedures of modern turf management guided by the underlying principles of environmental responsibility, both personally and collectively within the industry. It is more than a collection of tools and techniques; it’s an awareness and a mindset that can, and should, be a part of improving day-to-day operations and evolving long-range strategies.

  1. Maintain dense turf.

    Bare soil is an environmental problem. Studies show that thick, healthy turfgrass controls runoff and benefits the environment. So, your intensity of maintenance must keep pace with the intensity of use. For the same reasons, compaction and excessive thatch must be addressed.

  2. Focus on the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

    Fine-tune irrigation and nutrients, reduce pesticides with IPM, use some natural organic fertilizers, compost. Does your vehicle go miles per gallon or gallons per mile? The possibilities go on and on.

  3. Don’t fertilize the sidewalk.

    Keep all inputs in the grass, not on the hardscape. Scrutinize wash areas, don’t spill when you fill, dispose of containers properly, etc. “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.”

  4. Budget for stewardship.

    Differentiate between expense and investment. Examples: “Good seed doesn’t cost, it pays.” Controlled release N is environmentally friendlier, but costs more. Updating equipment can improve efficiency and reduce emissions, and so on.

  5. Understand mowing.

    “The higher the shoots, the deeper the roots.” Deeper-rooted turf requires fewer inputs. Raise clipping heights if and when possible, mow with regularity and keep sharp blades.

  6. Stay awake.

    Know your site and the materials you use. Watch the weather. Explore new pest management alternatives. Observe and record. Be an expert, and pursue continuing education!

  7. Build programs on knowledge, not products.

    Plans should precede tool selection, not the other way around. Proper culture first! Be guided by the practices and principles of IPM.

  8. Be precise.

    Comply with environmental rules and regulations. Be a fine craftsman. Measure. Calibrate. Use materials properly. Maintain equipment for peak performance. Accurately identify problems. Do the right things at the right times. When in doubt, find out. Think, plan, think again, then execute.

  9. Be passionate.

    It’s contagious. Care a lot; let everyone know you do. Determine expectations, work to exceed them. Demonstrate our worth and integrity, personally and collectively.

  10. Communicate.

    Communicate and recruit. Gather support for healthier, safer turf. Explain to the concerned. Talk to your friends and your critics. We must be proactive in reshaping the image of our industry. The most reliable means of being perceived as an environmental steward is to be one.