New York state introduces organic lawn care initiative

With the green movement prompting homeowners to change the kinds of cars they drive and the types of lightbulbs they use, there also has been a rising interest in organic lawn care. The Safelawns Foundation, a group whose agenda is to promote organic lawn care, estimates the percentage of homeowners following a “nonchemical” lawn care program has doubled in the last four years to 10 percent nationally.

While there may be no way to independently verify that figure, there seems to be little question that there is a growing customer base that wants organic lawn care. That means potential opportunity for those who can provide that service. Naturally, though, there is sometimes a bit of confusion about what organic lawn care means and which contractors can provide that service.

New York state recently created a Be Green Organic Yards Program. Lawn care companies that pass the licensing test and commit to the standards of the program are allowed to use this logo to identify their organic lawn care credentials to customers. The state also maintains a list of these companies on its Web site for interested homeowners to search.
Courtesy of New York DEC.

To help support the organic lawn care approach and to add a bit of structure to that segment of the industry, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) recently unveiled the Be Green Organic Yards NY program to help train, test and identify organic lawn service providers in the state.

“Demand for all types of organic services is on the rise as people continue to be concerned about the amounts and types of chemicals used in everyday tasks. At the same time, consumers are sometimes unsure what ‘green’ means,” said New York DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis in introducing the program in Albany on June 7. “With the new Be Green initiative, the state will provide a way for specifically trained yard care companies to use the special logo when they offer organic yard management. The initiative will connect consumers with names of qualified companies.”

The Be Green Organic Yards NY initiative is completely voluntary, and while it may not be of interest to every lawn care contractor in the state, for those that already practice organic lawn maintenance or may be considering such a move, the program offers a number of benefits: clear standards; an easy-to-follow process; the credibility that comes with an organic lawn care license issued by the state; and the marketing opportunities by use of the program logo and a listing on the state agency’s Web site.

“We wanted to help businesses in the program so that there would be some consistency, and so that people who saw the logo would know what they were getting. We wanted to make it very clear to their customers that they could be confident in what they were getting,” explains Audrey Thier, special assistant to the commissioner with the DEC.

The Be Green program is intentionally set up to allow lawn care providers flexibility in how they go about caring for yards within the organic framework. Instead of mandating exactly what must be done as part of organic lawn care, the program is simply structured with a list of products and practices that can’t be used. “We know there’s a whole gamut of ways you can do things [organically] and we didn’t want to limit the way that you can do things,” says Thier. “And, organic is really a philosophy, anyhow.”

That sentiment is found throughout the program, which offers training and resources about best management practices in order to help promote healthy turf that then can be cared for without the use of synthetic chemicals. The required training, for example, doesn’t simply provide a list of products to avoid, explains Their. “We really talk about looking at lawn care holistically: planting the right cultivars, understanding the soil conditions and how to improve them, understanding what fertility means. Organic lawn care really takes looking at the site as a whole and preventing problems from happening rather than looking for a magical solution once you have problems.”

While there are sometimes disputes and confusion about the definition of organic in terms of food production, Thier says that wasn’t really the case when the DEC began to set up the “Be Green Organic Yards Program” and met with stakeholders (groups, academics, businesses, etc.) to refine the standards. “Instead of coming up with a single definition of what organic lawn care is, we tried to identify a set of practices that everyone agreed was definitely not appropriate for organic lawn care,” she explains.

The New York DEC currently is seeking qualified course providers to teach the class. The hope is to find qualified groups (nonprofits, industry groups, environmental groups, colleges, etc.) and even experienced companies that can offer the training to interested lawn care professionals in a number of different areas within the state. This will reduce the need for lawn care providers to travel for training, while also growing recognition of organic lawn care in various parts of the state. “These services are a lot easier to find in the downstate area, in Westchester and Long Island. They are a lot harder to come by upstate, so we’re hoping to inspire course providers across the state and expand those markets [for organic lawn services],” Thier says.

The training, a minimum of one-day with a four-hour refresher course every two years, will be required for everyone. “Rather than making judgment calls about who already knows how to do it right, we wanted to be sure that everyone is being provided with the fundamentals,” explains Thier. The Be Green curriculum will emphasize the importance of creating a “healthy and diverse soil plant ecosystem” with specific information on how to aerate and amend soil, along with numerous other best management practices. “The idea is to give people the basic tools necessary to do this successfully,” she says.

The state of New York is not charging for licenses, but Thier expects there may be some fee charged by the course providers to cover their services in putting on training sessions. “The people who takes those courses and pass the written Be Green exam will be eligible for signing an agreement with the state,” says Thier. “That’s our guarantee that the company will adhere to organic practices. And, if they don’t, we have the right to yank their right to use our logo and they won’t be listed on our Web site any longer.”

There are no routine inspections conducted by the state to ensure compliance, though Thier says reports of misconduct or inappropriate use of the Be Green logo, etc., will be looked into. “We don’t expect many complaints because the types of companies that want to take part in this kind of program really want to do it right.”

The New York DEC hopes to spend this summer signing up course providers, with training to take place during the fall and winter months, so participating Be Green companies are ready to hit the ground running next spring. For more information, visit www.dec.ny.gov and click on the link to the Be Green Organic Yards NY.

“We get inquiries all the time through our Web site or when we go out to talk with people,” says Their. “People say they really want to do things organically, but they’re not sure how to do it or who to call.” This program aims to provide interested businesses and customers the information they need.

Management Prohibitions

Lawn care companies taking part in New York’s Be Green Organic Yards Program must agree not to use any of the following in their lawn care services:

  • Synthetic herbicides, insecticides, insect growth regulators, fungicides, rodenticides or molluscides (except those limited synthetic products allowed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program).
  • Products that contain synthetic synergists, such as piperonyl butoxide.
  • Products that contain inert ingredients on the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) List 1: Inert Ingredients of Toxicological Concern.
  • Arsenical pesticides
  • Nicotine
  • Rotenone
  • Soil fumigants
  • Plant material or seeds derived from genetically modified organisms.
  • Synthetic fertilizers or fertilizers derived from sewage sludge.
  • Chemically-treated wood (including pressure-treated wood) and other treated articles.

Source: www.dec.ny.gov.

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.