Keeping It Green By Ron Hall

“You know, sometimes when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.” -George McGovern

“Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.” -Cowboy proverb.

Several decades ago when the controversy surrounding the use of lawn care pesticides almost erupted onto the national stage, it seemed almost inevitable to me that within the following generation the professional application industry would be much different than it is today. It seemed to me at the time that it would have to more aggressively embrace a “natural” or “organic” stance to survive and grow.

My feelings were colored by the two U.S. Senate subcommittee hearings in the early 1990s that I covered as editor-in-chief of Lawn Care Industry. The three Senators hosting the hearings consisted of environmental activist Joseph Lieberman (Conn.-D), Harry Reid (Nev.-D) and John Warner (Va.-R). It seemed to me that the lawmakers, especially Lieberman, were more intent on building a case upon which to initiate legislative action against the industry rather than getting the real facts about the industry and the products it was using.

And, of course, I didn’t foresee the development of new chemistry characterized by lower toxicity and use rates in some cases of ounces per acre of active.

Admittedly, I was in industry’s corner. How could I not be? In the previous seven or eight years reporting on the industry I had not been made aware of any credible evidence to suggest that the application industry posed an unacceptable risk to people, to pets or to the environment. In my mind the benefits that the industry provided to the American public outweighed any risk (real or perceived) that their use might suggest.

Obviously, I continue to feel that way today, although my timing, at least in predicting when the public would embrace “natural” or “organic” lawn care over the traditional application business, turned out to be faulty. Or, premature some of you may feel.

I wasn’t the only one that misjudged the direction of the market back then. The biggest lawn care company in the world at the time got it wrong, too.

Driving through Elyria, Ohio, early one morning in the summer of 1990, I was struck by the sight of a new ChemLawn truck gassing up at a service station. The rear panels of the truck immediately caught my attention. Each side bore a flowery jungle-type scene with the word EcoLawn boldly emblazoned across it.

Ecolawn? That seemed strange to me.

“How did I miss this?” I recall thinking to myself at the sight of the truck.

It was my job to know that ChemLawn, then owned by EcoLab but still the largest lawn care company in the world, was taking such a bold step and, also, to alert Lawn Care Industry’s readers to ChemLawn’s new initiative. The fact that ChemLawn had launched what appeared to be an “ecological” lawn care service was, in my opinion, big news.

As it turned out neither EcoLawn nor ChemLawn, at least as a standalone company, lasted much longer. The EcoLawn effort seemed to fade almost as mysteriously as it had arrived. ChemLawn received a trademark for the name in 1990, but abandoned it in 1992. And, about that time ServiceMaster and Waste Management joined to acquire ChemLawn, which was later merged with TruGreen.

So after all of these years how is “organic” or “natural” lawn care fairing compared to the more traditional application business? The short answer is “well, and it’s growing,” especially in towns or neighborhoods with a very strong ecological consciousness. And, even though, it constitutes less than 10 percent of the industry’s revenue, just about every established lawn care company offers some type of “organic” or “natural” service option.

I’m still convinced that “organic” lawn care will play a much bigger role in the industry. I’m just not sure how long it will take.

Ron Hall