One only needs to take a casual look around to see that the green industry is ‘going green’ in a big way. More landscape companies are adopting sustainable practices, such as using organic compost instead of chemical fertilizers, and eliminating the use of pesticides.
There is more and more interest in using alternative fuels, such as biodiesel, propane and battery power. What’s driving this growing trend? Client demand.
“Three things are driving the green movement,” said Judith M. Guido, chairwoman and founder of Moorpark, California-based green industry consulting firm Guido and Associates. “Number one, and most importantly, is declining natural resources.
Number two is customer demand. The baby-boomers and the millennials want to leave our planet a better place than they came into. Thirdly, as a result of the Internet and all the electronic tools that we have today, there’s a desire to create transparency.” In other words, if you’re claiming to be doing things that are ecologically sustainable or organic, you’d better be able to prove it.
Frank Crandall, owner of Frank Crandall Horticultural Solutions in Charlestown, Rhode Island, was a conventional landscape contractor for thirty years. After going organic, which he transitioned into gradually, his business became more profitable.
“Local landscapers and lawn maintenance people are interested in going organic because they’re getting requests from their clients. People don’t want to see all these chemicals on their lawns, whether it’s fertilizer or a pre-emergent weed treatment.” More than anything else, his business is customer-driven.
Crandall says that his high-end clients who own coastal property are very concerned about the environment. “On the other hand, they also want to make sure their property looks really good. The battle is to try to be 100 percent organic and still achieve the results they want.” He must have done that, because in making the transition, he never lost any clients.
Sometimes, however, a compromise is called for. “There were some clients who, six months or a year later, said, ‘My yard doesn’t look as good as I thought it was going to.’ They wanted to go back to the traditional approach,” said Crandall. “So I put together a hybrid program to keep most of the organic services, along with some of the traditional ones, in order to keep that client.” In fact, many companies have taken this mixed approach.
Crandall agrees that this is a growing trend and getting bigger. “I’ve seen some research that says the market right now is at, maybe, 30 percent organic. If you look at a lot of the surveys where they’ve asked clients if they would consider organic alternatives, 70 to 75 percent say that they would.”
When Scott Walker first opened Pleasant Green Grass, an organic landscape company in Durham, North Carolina, seven years ago, he “had the organic landscape market to myself.” Now, however, he has much more competition. Part of the reason, he speculates, is that Durham is in the “research triangle” where a lot of highly educated, environmentallyaware people live and work.
Part of the problem for consumers is that any landscape company can call itself “organic,” when it may be only partly organic, or hardly organic at all. The number of organic landscapers who use no chemicals whatsoever is about four to five percent, says Guido.
In response to that, in 2000-2001, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), an organization with landscaper members in 18 states, created the “Standards for Organic Land Care: Practices for Design and Maintenance of Ecological Landscapes.”
Like PLANET, NOFA offers accreditation. Take their classes, and you can be certified as an Accredited Organic Landscape Care Professional (AOLCP). The organization has about 500 accredited professionals at any given time.
Pesticides and herbicides
The public is becoming more aware of the problems of colony collapse syndrome (CCS, the term for the unknown plague that’s killing off the bees). One of the suspected causes of CCS is nicotinoids in pesticides. As the word spreads, expect more of your clients to start asking you to ditch the stuff with the skulland-crossbones on the side of the container and take a more natural approach to insect control.
Jan Feldman, executive director for Beyond Pesticides in Washington D.C., an organization that provides information to the public about pesticides and their alternatives. He says that the public is demanding the change. He cites as an example the Safe Grow Act of 2013, passed unanimously by the Takoma Park, Maryland City Council recently. The act generally restricts the use of cosmetic lawn pesticides on both private and public property throughout the city.
“That’s indicative of the kinds of conversations we’re having with communities across the country,” says Feldman. “Consumers are concerned about what the toxic chemical use is in their communities, regardless of where they’re being used, whether on public or private land.”
If this becomes a trend across the country, there’ll be a lot more demand for organic landscape services, according to Feldman. “This shift we’re seeing is not anti-business. We see evidence that this is good for business. The same companies that are delivering services now can adjust to these changes in a way that creates opportunities. In Takoma Park, it increased the demand for companies that deliver services that comply with the law.”
When you’re talking eco-green, you don’t consider the health of the plants, the health of the soil, and pest control as separate items; they’re inextricably linked. Plants that are healthy and grown in biologically active soil are stronger and have more natural resistance to invasion by pests, weeds and diseases. It’s part of the holistic approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM).
Going green is not just a matter of switching one product for another. Even so, Feldman feels that “there’s no question that new products coming out will be more environmentally sensitive, and will fit into systems that respect nature. That’s where we are now, in sort of a transitional area. The industry really has to catch up to consumer demand.”
The growing demand for chemicalfree weed abatement has spurred some interesting innovations. One example is the Frostbite Weed Control System from Clemmons, North Carolina-based Arctic, Inc. Founder and COO Rob Howerton also happens to be a landscape contractor. This eco-friendly product kills weeds by freezing them.
He got the inspiration for the product one day while using a can of computer keyboard cleaner, then looked out the window and hoped a frost would kill the weeds. He got a hunch, spritzed a weed with the keyboard spray, and it died the next day. The product, which uses specially designed CO2 canisters, was developed from that experiment.
There’s an abundance of natural and certified organic soil amendments and fertilizers out there; a simple Google search will reveal that.
And there’s going to be more. Once again, as with pesticides, it’s regulatory pressure that’s behind it. Many communities are starting to prohibit or limit the use of chemical fertilizers. In Tampa, Florida, for instance, the city council banned the sale of nitrogen and phosphorus-laden fertilizers, starting in 2012. Nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into waterways leads to oxygen-depleting algae blooms, among other things.
“There are incredible amounts of legislation either already here or coming down the pike,” says Barrett Ersek, CEO of Holganix in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. “It’s going to get worse as the years go by. It’s forcing fertilizer companies and people who apply fertilizer to look at other solutions.”
People lump Holganix in with organic fertilizers, but it’s not a fertilizer; its analysis is 0-0-0. “We don’t focus on feeding the plant directly,” said Ersek. “I’m feeding the microbiology in the soil, and our philosophy is to build a thriving, robust microbiological ecosystem with the right balance of beneficial bacteria and beneficial fungi. That food-web will do a lot to feed the plant naturally.”
The oldest type of natural fertilizer is, of course, animal manure, which has been used for centuries. Another, called “biosolid,” comes mainly from human wastes, processed sewage sludge. It’s nothing new, either. One such product, Milorganite, has been produced by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District since the 1920s.
However, as Ersek points out, even organic materials can pollute. One of the biggest sources of the expanding “dead zones” in Chesapeake Bay has been blamed on Amish farmers, who use liquid manure slurry on their fields in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which sits at the foot of Chesapeake Bay.
Green landscape clients want their landscape professionals to be green in every way. They don’t want to see you spreading organic compost on their lawns while at the same time, your mowers are belching greenhouse gases. That’s not consistent messaging.
Walker would agree, so he built his own biodiesel plant on the premises of Pleasant Green Grass, and runs all of his trucks on it. He trades landscape services for used vegetable oil with a friend who owns a couple of restaurants.
Kelly Giard, owner and founder of Fort Collins, Colorado-based Clean Air Lawn Care, says that “customers like us for a variety of reasons. We do organic fertilization programs, so it’s a full-service lawn care company with a focus on health, quiet and the environment.”
But the main attraction is the company’s innovative approach to power. Clean Air’s mowers, trimmers, blowers and other tools run on battery power, charged by solar panels on their trucks. There’s always one tool or mower running and another on the truck, charging. Largerdeck mowers, used on big commercial sites, run on biodiesel.
Has this approach been successful? Clean Air Lawn Care’s 30 franchises around the country would seem to verify that. The proof is in the numbers; the company’s threeyear, top-end growth rate, nationally, has been 48 percent per year. Giard says that most of his franchisees come from non-green-industry backgrounds. “They’re green entrepreneurs, looking for a business model that makes sense, and they land on this.”
Another harbinger of success is that their business model has been copied “at least 25 times,” according to Giard. But he doesn’t mind. “We can’t mow every lawn in the U.S., so we’re all for people copying what we do.”
Sunterra Landscape Services, LLC, has branches in Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, Texas, serving commercial clients exclusively. You might think that a company with business rather than residential clients would be less likely to go green. Not so. Right now, the company is in the process of changing over all of its mowers and trucks to propane.
“Our corporate headquarters is in Austin,” says COO Judy McNew. “A lot of our customers there are more green-focused. Many of the clients we service that have big facilities, like Dell and Shell Oil, want to show that they’re trying to go green.”
The decision to change over was “both customer-based and costbased,” according to McNew. She says the company considered the fact that the cost of a gallon of gas is $3.34 in Austin right now, while propane is just over a dollar per gallon. Besides, “we want to go more green, because the industry is changing,” she said, “and if you’re not changing with it, you’re going to get left behind.”
The greening of the green industry is going to continue apace. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open to the change. Don’t be threatened by it; embrace it.