If you wanted to sum up lawn care trend drivers for the year 2014 in just two words, you could do worse than choosing the words “economy” and “environment.”

The year 2014 was one of massive weather extremes, a mildly rebounding but spotty economy and continued interest in environmental concerns. Turf spoke with a number of lawn care manufacturers to find out how these mega-trends affected the lawn care industry in 2014. We’ll also look ahead to turf product trends for 2015, and how lawn care operators can get the most value from the products they use.

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Trend #1. How 2014’s ho-humming economy has impacted the lawn care industry

Weather, of course, is a major influencer of both environment and economy. The year 2014 was unusual in that its weather extremes topped the charts in all directions, according to climate.gov’s blog. The year began under the bitter spell of the infamous Polar Vortex, which is credited with deepfreezing the economy to the tune of an estimated $5 billion in lost revenue, points out “Cost of the Cold” in The Guardian. Spring and summer followed with record highs and drought in the western states, and extreme lows and heavy rainfall in the East and Midwest. These conditions presented both challenges and opportunities to lawn care providers.

Despite a slight economic rebound in the second and third quarters, lawn care product sales remained spotty and regional through most of 2014-perhaps due in part to the patchwork weather patterns. Most lawn care manufacturers report flat or slight growth for the year, which reflects the International Monetary Fund’s forecast of a fair-to-middling 2.2 percent growth rate in the U.S. economy for 2014.

The less-than-booming economy of the past few years has put the squeeze on many lawn care operators. Competition continues to be tight, pushing LCOs to streamline their operations and seek out ways to minimize waste and maximize efficiency and ROI.

Trend #2. The rise of cost-saving products

“One of the biggest trends I’ve seen in the industry is that owners and operators are looking to be as efficient as possible in every aspect of their operations,” says Chris Gray, marketing product manager of LebanonTurf. “In terms of products, they are demanding that every product, whether it be fertilizer or weed control, perform at the highest levels in order to keep their customers satisfied, which ultimately retains their business.”

Turf: Fast Facts

A healthy, thriving lawn boasts many benefits.

In recent years progress seems to have been made in improving air quality, but the levels of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter in our atmosphere (primarily from the burning of carbonbased fuels) are still a major concern. Plants absorb these gaseous pollutants into their leaves and break them down, thereby cleaning the air. Just 1 acre of flourishing growth will absorb hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide during a year. Grass also takes in carbon dioxide, hydrogen fluoride and peroxyacetyl nitrate-the worst group of atmospheric pollutants. Grasses in the U.S. also trap an estimated 12 million tons of dust and dirt released annually into the atmosphere. – Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service

Our air is cleansed by plants through the process of photosynthesis. Green plants take in carbon dioxide and water and use the energy from sunlight in photosynthesis, which produces carbohydrates for plants to live off of and releases oxygen. A 50-foot-by-50-foot turf area produces enough oxygen to meet the needs of a family of four. Each acre of grass produces enough oxygen for 64 people a day. The grass and trees along our country’s interstate system produce enough oxygen to support 22 million people. -Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service

Soil erosion is one of the most pressing environmental problems facing the world today. In the U.S. alone, nearly 6 billion tons of soil wash or blow away each year, a figure exceeding the amount of erosion experienced during the devastating “Dust Bowl” years of the 1930s.

Soil erosion in the U.S. costs between $6 and $16 billion a year. Turfgrass is the best defense against soil erosion because it binds the soil more effectively than any other plant. The reason? Each grass plant has an extensive root system; up to 90% of the weight of a grass plant is in its roots. A single grass plant grown under ideal conditions has over 300 miles of roots. Healthy turf areas absorb rainfall six times more effectively than a wheat field and four times better than a hay field. -Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service

Turf cools itself and its surroundings through the evapotranspiration process. One acre of turf on a summer day will lose about 2,400 gallons of water through evaporation and transpiration to the atmosphere. Roughly 50 percent of the sun’s heat striking the turf may be eliminated through this transpirational cooling process. The cooling properties of turf are so effective that temperatures over turfed surfaces on a sunny summer day will be 10 to 14 degrees cooler than over concrete or asphalt. -The Lawn Institute

For manufacturers, this trend has resulted in a quest to provide products that help their customers reduce their expenses. One way some manufacturers are cutting costs for their customers is by reducing the cost of delivering product. For example, freight costs add significantly to the cost of a bag of fertilizer. However, it doesn’t cost the manufacturer any more to bag up a concentrated product than one with a lot of filler. It may even cost less. By creating fertilizers with little or no filler material in the bag, manufacturers can deliver a more cost-effective product. Even if the same size bag is used and the cost per bag is higher, the cost per thousand square feet is significantly less.

Another way many manufacturers are responding to lawn care operators’ demands for efficiency is by creating combination products-for example, a fertilizer with both pre- and postemergent herbicides. These products allow lawn care crews to accomplish multiple tasks with less overall labor. The time savings not only reduces overhead per job, it allows LCOs to schedule more jobs in a day.

Trend #3. Sustainable landscaping is here to stay

Lawn care operators who want a lasting presence in the marketplace with these products also have to fit in with other landscape industry trends, one of which is sustainable landscaping.

“Eco-friendly landscaping is the most significant trend I’m aware of at this time,” says Bobby Walls, product development manager for FMC’s herbicide and fungicide division. “There’s been a big movement toward products that people understand as being sustainable. A lot of people want assurance that the lawn care products they use won’t be harmful to the environment.”

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This trend affects every aspect of the industry, from product development to distribution. Environmental concerns in landscaping include not just product toxicity, but habitat restoration, invasive species and soil and water management. Increasingly, sustainable landscaping options are not just a matter of popular demand, but a legal matter, too.

Demographic Sweet Spots For LCOs

Our current economy does have its sunny spots. Manufacturers report areas of growth, often tied to specific regions or demographics.

Cities such as Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; and Charlotte, North Carolina, are hot spots for lawn care at the moment due to their strong economic growth and high percentage of working professionals. However, lawn care operators anywhere can realize their own hot spots by staying on top of major demographic trends.

As one would expect, retiring baby boomers are one group to focus on. “As baby boomers enter retirement, they are using lawn care services more than the younger generations,” states Tom Linnen, portfolio marketing leader for Dow AgroSciences Turf & Ornamental. While many baby boomers are content to relax and leave the landscaping to the professionals, many others actively enjoy working outside but don’t feel they can do it all themselves. Offering a la carte services may be a good way to win these customers, many of whom may end up switching to fullservice lawn care as they age.

On the other end of the age spectrum, a rising trend with young couples to delay or omit childrearing also offers opportunity. In recent years, there has been an increase in ‘active adult’ communities: young to middle-aged adults who have a higher disposable income and busy, active lifestyles. Many of these individuals are part of the “wired” generation and are relatively uneducated about gardening and lawn care. For them, turn-key, full-service, professional, year-round lawn and landscape care can be a very attractive option.

Developing branding that specifically targets these or other promising demographics can help lawn care companies differentiate themselves in the marketplace-a critical practice in today’s competitive environment.

Trend #4. The impact of regulation

One of the biggest challenges to suppliers brought on by the push for sustainability is keeping up with environmental regulation. Over the past five years the amount of regulation on turf care products has increased dramatically. Of course, no one denies the importance of environmental protection. However, the time and expense associated with regulatory compliance and bringing new products to market are significant, and they directly affect the cost of product development.

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Take combination products, for example. As mentioned above, combining two or more functions in one lawn care product can significantly reduce the expense of application. However, more testing may be required to establish the safety of multiple ingredients working together. Also, since product bans and regulations differ from one region to the next, any given product may be legal in one state or region and illegal for use in its neighbor. The regulatory process can also take longer in certain states than others, meaning a product might be approved in one state months or years before a neighboring state approves it. This creates a distribution hurdle in trying to keep select products out of certain geographical areas. As a result, some manufacturers are bucking the combo product trend and offering single products that may be quicker and easier to bring to market.

9 Tips For Stellar Lawn Care Product Results

Manufacturers spend significant resources to make sure their products work as intended and are respectful of the environment. However, this responsibility is shared with the lawn care operators who use them. We asked several lawn care product manufacturers how lawn care operators can achieve optimal results. Here are their suggestions for improving performance:

1. Use better adapted varieties. When selecting turfgrass, look for cultivars that are pest-resistant and bred to withstand the conditions in your area. They will look better with less input, saving you labor and product.

2. Practice good diagnostics. Proper scouting and pest diagnosis is a crucial first step toward correcting any lawn care problem. Soil and tissue testing is also an excellent practice. “From a fertilizer perspective, testing really is the only way to know what actually is in the soil and plant and what they need,” explains Chris Gray, product marketing manager for LebanonTurf.

3. Research. “Educate yourself about your alternatives,” suggests B.J. Harrington, marketing manager at Control Solutions, Inc. “Read university research and any available literature. The product labels are a good place to start. Much information is provided on the EPA registration label that will tell how friendly products are to the environment, pets and applicators.”

4. Follow label directions. “Applicators should know the label inside and out. Too often, when we get product complaints, it’s a matter of a problem that could have easily been avoided had the applicator followed label directions,” says Jason Fausey, weed scientist at Nufarm. Keep in mind, too, that failure to follow lawn care product label directions not only leads to poor results, but in many cases is a violation of the law.

5. Use equipment properly. Maintain and calibrate all application equipment, and use spreader guards when applying granular products to be sure you are applying the correct amount of product.

6. Educate your crews. Take the time to make sure each of your employees knows the importance of proper application techniques and how to achieve them.

7. Test products on your own. Manufacturers do their best to test their products under a wide variety of conditions, but they can’t test everywhere. It’s up to you to determine how a product will perform in your local area. “When you decide to test a product, use solid trial methods. This includes using a check or untreated area. Make frequent observations, take pictures and keep good notes,” suggests Jim Spindler, director of agronomy at Ecologel Solutions, LLC.

8. Educate your customers. “Education is key,” says Tom Linnen, portfolio marketing leader for Dow Agro- Sciences Turf & Ornamental. “When you engage your customers, customer retention improves. Talk to your customers about what they can do to support your efforts and ultimately help create a healthier lawn. You should be addressing proper mowing height and lawn mower maintenance, as well as the importance of weed control, aeration and fertilization.”

When you speak to your customers, remember to keep it simple. Use straightforward language and visual aids. Many manufacturers offer excellent marketing materials that get the basic idea across with information graphics and photos of key weeds, diseases and turf pests. Use them, and supplement them with stories from your own experience.

9. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. “I always recommend that lawn care operators be knowledgeable about every product they use,” Gray says. “This means, a good majority of the time, asking questions.” Sales representatives are great resources, as are your local extension agents. Many hold off-season educational events for lawn care operators.

Take advantage of these opportunities. You may also benefit from attending industry conferences and/or online forums, where you can learn from experts and experienced lawn care professionals with whom you are not in direct competition.

Trend #5. Education is a must with sustainable turf products

Customer attitude is one of the biggest hurdles faced by companies offering sustainable solutions. “Historically, environmentally friendly products have carried a ‘snake oil’ connotation; the idea being that these products do not work at all or that they do not work as well as traditional products,” says Jim Spindler, director of agronomy at Ecologel Solutions, LLC.

For manufacturers and lawn care operators alike, the secret to overcoming this challenge boils down to proving product efficacy. “Industry trends and increased demand are changing this mentality, and we have already seen a shift in the acceptance of these products with current trends,” Spindler reports. “As those trends continue, products that are proven effective will continue to gain support from companies who may have previously written them off.”

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As in every aspect of lawn care, education is key. Terms such as organic, sustainable, IPM and others are popular, but the general public and even many experienced turf professionals don’t always fully understand them. “Lawn care operators should study these concepts to understand how they fit into their operations,” Spindler says. “With this understanding they will be able to properly apply them in the field.”

Benefit From Industry Partnerships

Regardless of current trends or which way the winds of the economy blow, lawn care operators can benefit hugely by taking full advantage of their relationships with product manufacturers.

LCOs can help by maintaining open lines of communication, making their needs known and providing honest feedback about how products perform in the field. And they can help themselves by taking advantage of the educational opportunities and expertise manufacturers offer.

As you head into the new year, why not make a resolution to reach out to your reps and ask them what else they offer? They may just help you make 2015 your best year ever.

Looking ahead to 2015

How will these trends play out in 2015 and beyond?

On the sustainability side, look for even more stringent environmental regulation and ever greater innovation from manufacturers. Older chemistries will continue to be replaced by products that achieve the same results with lower doses and less persistence in the environment. Expect the trend towards products that target specific pests in lieu of shotgun solutions to continue, along with a focus on product safety, which will better protect workers and others who come in contact with these products after application. And we will likely continue to see an increasing movement away from reliance on traditional chemical fertilizers and pest control toward more holistic, outside-the-spraybottle solutions such as new soil and water management techniques, integrated pest management, and the use of microbial and other biological agents.

Expect a rise in generics, too. Since a number of popular lawn care products will be going off patent in the next five years, we will likely see manufacturers responding by offering generic alternatives- and by creating brand-new products utilizing these post-patent chemicals. “Traditionally, with increased generic pressure in the marketplace comes increased competitive pressure, which ultimately has an impact on price. With several active ingredients becoming generic (in the near future), there is opportunity to work with these technologies to offer enhanced pre-mixed products,” comments Dave Loecke, herbicide product manager at PBI Gordon.

Finally, don’t be surprised to see advances in hardware and software technologies for lawn care. Some of these may include innovative lawn care apps and improved battery-operated lawn care tools.