LCO creates website offering pesticide training classes for others in the industry

Todd Graus has toiled in the green industry all of his working life. His business, Green Turf Lawnscapes, is billed as the largest lawn and tree health care company in Wyoming, but he has a new love that is taking up a lot of his time. A man with an entrepreneurial spirit, he has created a website that offers landscape professionals a place to take pesticide training classes and get certified without leaving home or the office.

Todd Graus created the Green Applicator Training website as an offshoot of his lawn and tree care business in Wyoming.

The website, www.greenapplicator.com, not only offers pesticide safety training videos—some produced by Graus’ company—it also offers a certification test that can be taken and graded online. In an era when landscape companies are reluctant to send their employees to expensive seminars, the Green Applicator Training site is proving to be a hit. Only two years old, it already is bringing in revenue for the company and giving Graus ideas on how to expand it and provide more services for the industry.

Todd Graus says the profits are slow to meet expenses in web enterprises, but there is a lot of opportunity.
Photos courtesy of Green Turf Lawnscapes.

Graus is a Nebraska native who started the original Green Turf Lawnscapes there in 1984 after working at a nursery and another landscape company when he was young. After getting a degree in forestry management and working for the U.S. Forest Service for a year, he reconstituted his old company in 1997 in Wyoming.

“It pretty much snowballed on us,” Graus says of the second iteration of the company, which specializes in chemical applications to lawns and trees. It started as a one-man lawn fertilizer and pest control enterprise that utilized his expertise in disease and pest diagnosis. Because of his interest in trees and the natural demand in his area, the business now consists of about 70 percent tree health treatments.

Currently, Green Turf Lawnscapes has five to six full-time winter employees and up to 20 summer seasonal employees. Originally started in Worland, Wyo., the business now has headquarters in its second office in Jackson Hole. The model, which his wife Holly helped him devise and operate, has been very successful. Holly, an accountant, still works with him and has given the business good purchasing habits and other solid business traits that complement his diagnostic and technical skills.

The website started as a standard company page for advertising purposes, but Graus was being stretched between two offices and found it difficult to travel to Worland every week for the company’s regular pesticide safety meetings. So, he began shooting training sessions with a camcorder and sending it to the other office for employees to watch.

He hired a professional videographer to shoot the sessions, and the idea arose to stop mailing the training video to the other office and put it on the website. That way, employees could sit down in front of the computer when they had some free time and get their safety lesson. The next step was for Graus to develop a safety test for employees to take, where they could get a score and a certificate of their achievement when they passed it. Almost immediately, he also saw the benefit of offering these training videos and tests to applicators across the country, but he understood that that would require more computer expertise than he had at the time.

“It took me several months to find a company that could help me build this software,” he recalls. He ended up hiring an Italian company to write the code that would enable the website to offer training, testing and scoring in a secure way. Since then, Graus has devised four separate services on the site.

The first service offered is the standard weekly pesticide safety video, which can be accessed simply for information or for continuing education credit. It can be accessed by any lawn, tree or landscape worker who registers, pays a fee and logs in. Graus has negotiated certification credits with university cooperative extension services around the country and now offers credits in states from Maine to Washington, with over 30 states signing on—the others having rules or technology issues that have thwarted access.

The fee for a personal registration for weekly training sessions is $24.95 per year, and a company can register for $19.95 plus $10 for every employee who will sign onto the site and do the training. Graus, and the many registered users, feel that this type of training is not only more economical than the old way, it also provides better training and retention in half-hour or one-hour sessions in front of the computer. Users take a test devised by Graus, get a score and can print out their own certificate of completion once they pass.

“What we are dealing with [in the industry] is hazardous materials, and we have to treat these materials with respect,” Graus says of the importance of this information. The second service he began to offer was videos on special topics, such as profiles on specific chemicals that can be accessed for extra fees. The subject matter can range widely, from the legality of spraying near streams to methods of preventing drift. Many of these videos come in 10-minute sessions that are quick to watch and easy to retain.

Another area he is exploring on the website is procedural training for landscapers, particularly pesticide applicators. These are topics such as how to calibrate spray equipment or maintain it properly. Here again, he started out by producing these types of videos himself for the education of his own employees, but now offers them online for others willing to pay to watch.

Graus also offers online sample state pesticide applicator certification exams. He explains that states don’t always offer extensive practice materials and sample exams, and he has gone to the trouble of producing some himself. Applicators can take these for a fee and gain confidence and knowledge before they take the actual state exam. He already has five of them for different states and will be adding more. He has realized that he will not be able to produce all of the videos and other training materials necessary to cover all of the above topics, so he has reached out to other producers for the rights to show their materials. These range from private companies’ video manuals to university professors who want their students to be able to stream lessons on a particular topic from a website. He is currently searching for more of these materials, particularly training or how-to videos, to offer through his site on a cost-sharing basis. He will also work with people who want to produce videos, help them make the training materials more professional.

Obviously, Graus has gone far beyond the job description of a lawn and tree health worker. He has created a pretty original and ground-breaking site that can be used as a clearinghouse for green industry training, and it has taken a lot of time and expense. He has had to learn quite a bit about videography, web design, software development, state pesticide regulations and many other matters. His company currently has a computer engineer and a web designer on staff, as well as someone to handle the training videos.

Because of security and proprietary issues, he also has had to immerse himself in the world of digital rights management. The legal and technical expertise that allows people to go to a website and stream video, but prevents them from downloading it and reproducing it themselves, is very tricky, but is essential to being able to make money from it on an exclusive basis.

Continuing education credits for pesticide safety training for many states are offered by Greenapplicator.com. States colored purple do not allow CECs at this time, while the ones colored green do.

The time he has spent has also given him insight into the potential for a site such as Green Applicator Training. The training possibilities are endless, and he is even venturing into other related areas. For example, he is offering a training video on how to clean up oil spills, as the process is very similar to cleaning up pesticide spills. “I’ve been asked to do an online test for electricians,” he adds, noting that once the mechanism for online training and testing is in place it can apply to any subject area.

The profits are slow in coming, with some of his revenue garnered from the training fees and some from ads placed on the website. In the future, there is the opportunity to partner with larger companies to release other types of training videos. He also has gone into completely different web enterprises, one being a site where people in the industry can sell and buy supplies and equipment. Located at www.greenapplicatormall.com, the site allows sellers to utilize ads or an auction function. The mall is free to buyers, while sellers must pay fees ranging from a few dollars for limited transactions up to $100 per year for a membership and the right to sell unlimited items. It is being used very actively.

Another of his enterprises is a web domain sales and web hosting site. Once he became invested in the web, he found many possibilities opening up, though it is too early to be counting much profit. He estimates he’s spending about 25 percent of his time on these types of projects now, but his company is getting only about 10 percent of its revenue from them. One positive is that he can spend a lot of time on it during the winter when snow is on the lawns.

It has only been a couple of years in the making, and Graus is a determined individual. He feels he is doing a service to an industry that has been very good to him. Without the availability of online training, many applicators would never get any training at all, and he has seen the work of untrained pesticide workers and understands the danger they pose to the environment and the industry.

Graus is also encouraged by the opportunities offered by the web, which not only provides a forum for entrepreneurs like himself, it also opens a huge market to somebody who, in far-away Wyoming, would otherwise never be able to reach it.

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.