What the industry can (and should) do to keep America green

American homeowners love their lawns. The majority of property owners want them prim and regularly mowed. They want them green (preferably dark green), and they want them weed- and pest-free.

But not everybody loves lawns – more precisely, how they are nurtured and maintained. Some people are alarmed by the emissions released into the atmosphere by mowers. The sound of backpack or hand-held blowers in cleaning sidewalks and driveways of grass clippings annoys some individuals to the point of seeking that their use is banned.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of lawns and water. A common refrain heard in the arid U.S. Southwest is that “lawns are water-wasters.” On the opposite end of the scale critics decry nutrient runoff from lawns into streams, lakes and bays.

Most reasonable people, including those whose livlihoods depend on producing products and services for the lawn care industry, would agree that all of these concerns are valid to one degree or another.

Finally, perhaps the most nettlesome issue faced by turf professionals is its use of synthetic lawn care chemicals. Critics are vocal in questioning the need for these products and actively campaign against their use.

But are any of them (or any combination of them) reason to deny property owners the beautiful lawns they desire? The answer is “no,” say turf care product manufacturers, service providers and, judging by the incredible acreage of turfgrass covering U.S. properties, property owners, as well.

The industry (from manufacturers to distribution to end users) takes each of these concerns to heart, and is working diligently to address them through innovation, new technology and through the education and the adoption of best practices by the professionals who maintain them.

For example, landscape professionals are rapidly adopting technologies that make mowing, trimming and edging more fuel efficient and that dramatically reduce noxious emissions into the atmosphere. These technologies include electronic fuel injection (EFI) and the use of alternative fuels such as clean diesel, propane and lithium batteries.

The last several years have witnessed intense incremental innovation by manufacturers in terms of equipment design and more efficient and environmentally friendly energy options.

Water use is another huge concern in the turftgrass industry. This is especially true in the arid U.S. Southwest. The problem is being addressed mainly in two ways: by regulations/incentives to reduce water use on lawns and by irrigation manufacturing companies producing “smarter” systems that, when properly designed, installed and maintained are very efficient in delivering water to landscapes.

Despite the criticism aimed at turf care, lawns are here to stay. They are as much a part of the post-WWII American experience as air-conditioning and two-car garages.

A 2005 NASA-sponsored study estimated the amount of lawns in the United States at 49,000 square miles, and claimed that turfgrass is the nation’s largest irrigated crop. Even conservatively estimating (and for example purposes only) that just 5 percent of the 91 million single detached residential homes identified by the 2010 U.S. Census receive professional lawn care service of one form or another, means that approximately 6 million homes receive contracted services. Then, of course, there’s the huge consumer side of the business now in full bloom at big box stores and other retail outlets.

Lawns are big business in the United States, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Peter Farno, U.S. lawn & landscape business manager at Bayer CropScience, is one of many people within the industry who is optimistic about the lawn care industry’s future and about Americans’ appreciation for their lawns.

“Basic research and development companies’ streams of innovation goes in cycles and we’re at one of those high points right now. I think the future looks great. With a growing economy and new innovative products, I fully expect the lawn care and the landscape business to continue to prosper,” says Farno.

Farno bases his optimism on several factors, starting with what he is hearing from his company’s 10-member Lawn Care Advisory Board. Then, of course, there is the economy, which is in recovery, albeit not as robust as most of us desire.

“The economy is fragile, we all know this,” he opines. “But a year ago we might have been surprised to see it as well as it is and I think it is going to continue with even more momentum.”

Dr. Bobby Walls, product development manager, FMC.
Photo courtesy of FMC.

Softer solutions

But, perhaps the biggest reason for his optimism is the ongoing innovation within the industry. This includes the development of chemical compounds with less toxicity, much lower use rates (often ounces per acre of a.i.) and better efficacy. This newer “softer” chemistry has replaced problematic older products, such as dursban and diazinon.

He and other knowledgeable people within the industry focus on what’s happening now and what’s still in store for the lawn service industry rather than dwelling on its past.

“Unfortunately, those who would oppose pesticide use have a tendency to portray practices that either don’t exist or are really in the past,” says Karen Reardon, vice president, public affairs, Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE).

“Their messaging does not reflect new technology, advances in chemistry, advances in application technique of equipment, or applicators that are increasingly more knowledgeable,” she adds. “These are trained professional people. They have to be regularly recertified and they do the right thing,” she adds. (Formed in 1991, RISE is the national trade association of specialty pesticide and fertilizer producers.)

As an analogy, how many of us would still like using technology of 30 years ago – being tied to a desktop phone to communicate, driving a car without air bags or having to pop a videocassette into our brand new (and expensive) VCR to see a movie?

The turf industry has made similar strides in the past generation. And Farno is convinced the industry will continue to evolve and to improve.

“The big change moving forward is biologicals, and it is not just Bayer,” he says. “The ag markets are getting way more engaged with biologic products. We are going to benefit from that in the lawn and landscape business. Bayer made a significant acquisition (AgraQuest) about a year and a half ago. BASF bought Becker Underwood, and Monsanto recently (Dec. 13, 2013) announced an agreement with Novozymes.”

Farno adds, “That’s the wave of the future. The challenge will be how we integrate these biologic products into a more holistic solution that really secures the future of lawn and landscape businesses.”

Dr. Bobby Walls agrees that the integration of new ideas and new technologies, whether synthetic molecules or biologics, is going to be a challenge. But, he says that it will make it stronger, more responsible and it will allow service providers to deliver even more environmental and life-enhancing benefits to clients’ properties.

Walls, product development manager at FMC, advocates a “program approach,” similar to what’s used in progressive agriculture, for turf and ornamental care.

“That might mean that you use my product today, but company B’s product tomorrow. We have to work collectively within the industry to develop those systems,” he says.

Looking ahead, Walls sees resistance as an emerging issue that could have a serious impact on the industry, another reason for a program approach.

“The crop people are having to deal with it much sooner than those of us in golf and lawn care. And they’ve spent a lot of time and money developing systems to manage weed resistance,” says Walls. “The challenge for the turf industry will be putting together these systems.”

Fortunately, communication barriers within the industry are practically non-existent thanks to the industry’s acceptance and growth of social media. Because of this, product information as well as education and training opportunities are rapidly multiplying, adds Walls.

Karen Reardon, vice president, public affairs, RISE.
Photo courtesy of RISE.

Issues can escalate

So, with all of this innovation and all of positive energy, what could possibly go wrong in the U.S. lawn care industry? Plenty.

Just look to Canada where many of the products that the U.S. industry regularly uses to keep clients’ lawns attractive and weed/pest-free cannot be sold or used. The most recent count had more than 185 Canadian cities and towns with pesticide bylaws. And, it all started in 1991 in Hudson, a small off-island suburb of Montreal.

Lawn care issues typically start at the local level and they often spread, first by passing regulations to restrict product use on public properties, and then targeting private lawns, says Thomas Delaney, director of government affairs, the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET).

But unlike Canada, local jurisdictions in about 40 U.S. states are preempted from developing and implementing pesticide regulations on their own. Ten states do not have pesticide preemption, meaning that local jurisdictions in those states can make and enforce their own pesticide use laws. One of these states is Maryland, virtually at RISE’s back door. Pesticide use on lawns is a matter of concern and debate in several communities, including affluent Montgomery County, there.

Meeting a Half-Century of Challenges

The professional lawn application industry, at least as most of us recongize it, is a half-century old. Yes there were application companies prior to 1964, but they were congregated mostly in the U.S. East. They were few and far between.

It might seem strange that professional lawn care started taking off just after the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” which excoriated pesticide use. But that’s the case. Paradoxically it would seem, lawn care grew even more rapidly and emerged as a definable industry as the U.S. environmental movement erupted in the early to mid-1970s.

It was during this era that Ohio-based ChemLawn rapidly spread from one metropolitan market to another in the Midwest and East, TruGreen emerged from its central Michigan roots and far-sighted individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit began building strong, regional application businesses.

The evidence is clear: The lawn care industry developed and grew during the birth and blossoming of the U.S. environmental movement. Credit the growth of suburban living and the two-income family as among the forces contributing to the industry’s acceptance. The American lawn became as essential to homeowners as the two-car garage.

Consider the regulatory milieu in which the lawn care industry has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry:

  • Sept. 27, 1962 – Publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”
  • Dec. 7, 1963 – The Clean Air Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Amended in 1970 to authorize the development of comprehensive federal and state regulations to limit emissions
  • April 22, 1970 – The first Earth Day celebrated in the United States
  • May 2, 1971 – U.S. EPA created to protect human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress.
  • Oct. 18, 1972 – The Clean Water Act act becomes effective. Its objective is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.
  • Early to mid-1980s – Lawn posting laws debated and passed on a state-by-state basis. Some companies in the lawn care industry oppose the laws fearing that the lawn signs will unnecessarily “scare” the public. That turns out not to be the case.
  • 1987 – In the case Pesticide Public Policy Foundation v. Village of Wauconda, the U.S. District Court of Northern Illinois ruled that the Chicago suburb of Wauconda could not pass its own pesticide use regulations because its ordinance is preempted by state regulations. Most states have preemption.
  • 1988 – Pennsylvania develops a Pesticide Hypersensitivity Registry. Several other states in the 1990s develop similar registries to protect individuals sensitive to products used in pest and lawn applications.
  • Aug. 3, 1996 – President William J. Clinton signs into law the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) that standarizes how the U.S. EPA manages the use of pesticides and amends FIFRA. The FQPA mandated a health-based standard for pesticides used in foods, provided special protections for babies and infants, steramlined the approval of safe pesticides, established incentives for the creation of safer pesticides and required that pesticide registrations remain current.
  • 2000 – New York State passes a “Neighbor Notification Law.” Several counties within the state eventually pass legislation requiring commercial applicators to give residents 48-hour written notice before spraying certain pesticides on abutting properties within 150 feet. In 2001, Fairfax, Calif., passes a Neighbor Notification Law.
  • 2004 – The National Do Not Call Registry begins, restricting the industry’s use of telemarketing to sell lawn care services.

That lawn care has continued to thrive even in the face of a continuing stream of regulatory challenges (national, state-level and regional) arising from environmentalism is proof that the vast majority of American consumers value what the industry provides.

They accept lawn care as an efficient, affordable service that consistently delivers turfgrass lawns that beautify their properties, gives them a place to relax and recreate, and offers a host of environmental benefits. Yes, the industry is convinced that maintained lawns are environmentally beneficial. It points to lawns as reducing runoff, capturing dust and producing a cooling effect (reducing the urban heat affect) among other well-documented benefits.

Peter Farno, U.S. lawn & landscape business manager, Bayer CropScience.
Photo courtesy of Bayer.

Says Reardon of RISE, “We are active in Montgomery County with a group that is advocating for an integrated pest management approach within the county,” says Reardon. “We are awaiting language to be introduced that would put certain restrictions on pesticide use on county property and, to some degree, on private property.”

Typically these types of issues come to the fore during the lawn care industry’s busiest time of the year, she says, adding “that’s why it is so important to plan to become engaged at some point before that. If folks want to keep these products in their toolboxes they have to show up and become active whether it’s writing letters, sending emails or calling competitors and asking them to be engaged, too.”

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. June 1 marks his 30th year participating and reporting about the green industry. To comment on the article, reach him at rhall@mrpllc.com.

A Most Bizarre Anti-Industry Claim

The lawn care industry’s use of chemical control products has seemingly been under criticism since the publication of Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” in 1962. That book is generally acknowledged as kickstarting the U.S. environmental movement and igniting the anti-pesticide lobby.

One bizarre anti-lawn care, anti-pesticide incident in 1984 stands out.

A 23-year-old lawn care applicator named David Garabedian bludgeoned to death one of his customers at her home in Massachusetts. After being arrested he came to trial charged with first degree murder.

His defense attorney claimed that Garabedian was innocent by reason of insanity. The attorney claimed that chemical poisoning caused by the lawn care herbicide caused the insanity. The attorney even brought a five-gallon jug of Dursban insecticide into the courtroom to emphasize his defense. The lawn care industry was incredulous.

The Boston Herald alerted Massachusetts residents to the possible defense tactic with the headline: “Chemical Made Me Murder.” For two weeks, the national media (including “Today” and “Good Morning America”) followed the case with their usual zeal for controversy.

After arguments for both sides, an eight-man, eight-woman jury took just seven hours to convict Garabedian. Just like that, the controversy ended: pesticides were judged innocent in causing Garabedian to murder the customer.

However, if the jury had ruled for the defense – and there was speculation that it would, given the fear of pesticides running rampant among the public at the time – the entire lawn care industry would have been put on its heels.

“One thing we learned is that, in a trial like this, you can claim what you want,” Dr. James Wilkinson of Old Fox Lawn Care told me at the time. “I believe the charge was unsubstantiated. Quite obviously, the jury felt that way also. But being in front of a jury, you never really know which way they’re going to turn until they come back into that courtroom with a verdict.”

Was there pesticide paranoia back then? Most assuredly so, especially among the general public. And lawn-care operators were a bit paranoid themselves.

“I heard about the incident at its inception,” Bill Carey of Lawn Masters, Hawthorne, N.Y., told me back then. “This thing had all kinds of repercussions if they could have made a case out of it.”

And Paul Bizon, then of Prograss, Hubbard, Ore., was one of many industry professionals who was relieved. “It would have been bad if it had gone the other way. It was a situation that could have taken place in any industry or in any business. It’s unfortunate he [Garabedian] hung it on our industry.”

Had Garabedian somehow been vindicated, not only would the industry have lost the ability to apply certain pesticides, but insurance premiums would have skyrocketed, according to many industry observers. Never was there a doubt that the industry would have suffered debilitating, long-term consequences.

Thankfully, industry proponents had good, solid science on their side and eventually won many subsequent battles (if not the war). Despite the ridiculous claims of one David Garabedian.

Jerry Roche, who lives and writes in Strongsville, Ohio, was editor of Lawn Care Industry magazine from 1982 to 1985.