Charlie Hall’s lilting hybrid North Carolina-Texas drawl belies one of the sharpest minds in the green industry. He’s spent decades on quantifying the benefits of landscapes, and putting real numbers behind the push for sustainable practices.
Hall, who grew up on his family’s nursery, is now a professor of horticultural sciences at Texas A&M University where he combines equal parts horticulture and economics.
Now, on the heels of one of the worst droughts in American history, his work is more important than ever. He gave the keynote at last month’s Irrigation Association Show in Orlando, and we caught up with him to talk about the drought, sustainability and what Generation Y all mean for the future of the green industry.
L&L: What projects are you working on right now?
Hall: It’s almost easier to answer what am I not doing. I’m some research on the carbon footprint of shade trees right now. We call ourselves the green industry, but in many respects we’re not quite sure how green we are. Of course, the use of water for outdoor landscaping is a hot topic. So we’ve got to know what our footprint is, both in terms of carbon footprint and our water footprint for the future to be able to justify to legislators and to municipal leaders, why we need to continue watering landscapes versus putting a moratorium on outdoor watering.
And I’m doing a whole lot of consumer research on people’s attitudes toward local, organic, sustainable plants. A lot of research has been done on food products but not necessarily on ornamental. So we’re looking at their attitudes on does it make a difference if a plant’s produced locally or whether it’s produced in an energy saving manner or a water saving manner. Or whether or not the plants are water conserving in the landscape. Does that mean anything to folks right now?
L&L: Can you share any initial findings from that?
Hall: I’d say in general people are more responsive and more willing to pay a premium for products right now that are energy conserving rather than water conserving. But that’s also dependent on which region of the country they are. So if they’re in Michigan, they don’t think too much about whether a plant’s water conserving or not. But in Texas they do. Cause, you know in 2011 we lost a heck of a lot of plant materials down here in the state.
L&L: What impact do you see the drought having on the green industry in 2013?
Hall: Well, you know in a lot of the cities have stayed on water restrictions. They never went off of them. And that may be the new normal is that some of these larger cities – Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin. We may see them stay in stage one water restrictions. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because it enhances the recognition among homeowners that they’ve got to conserve water in a lot of different ways, not just in terms of watering outdoor landscapes but in terms of the appliances and the toilets that they use.
So I think there’s a great recognition of a need to conserve. And a greater recognition that whether this really is anthropogenic climate change or whether it’s just cyclical weather patterns, whatever the case may be, we know that there’s more divergence in the data that we see in terms of weather data. 2011 was the driest year since 1895 here in Texas.
L&L: Will that spread across the country?
Hall: I was speaking Texas primarily, but I think the same is true for the rest of the country. It’ll start in the drier areas in the country and then work its way even to Wisconsin and Minnesota and areas around the great lakes that they are water rich at this point. They’re still going to be susceptible to some of the changes in water policies that we’re talking about.
Remember back in 2007 where you had the drought in the southeast and just catastrophic impacts on the green industry. Thirty-one thousand jobs were lost in the state of Georgia alone.
Go ahead a year and a half and people are saying, ‘What drought?’ Lake Lanier starts filling back up and everybody forgets about it and then go back to watering or using water as they did before.
L&L: As soon as the lake got back above normal levels, everything was fine.
Hall: You’ve heard the saying, water’s the next oil. We’ve got to figure out ways to conserve water. But the answer is not simply don’t water plants, just water people. That’s not the answer. Because of the economic and the environmental ecosystem, the services and the health and well-being benefits that we represent. So that’s why this issue is so important, because unless we convey that to end consumers, unless we convey that to legislators, we’re gonna be stuck and they’re not gonna have an appreciation for the value that plants bring to both private and municipal landscapes.
And they’re just gonna say, ‘Well, we don’t need it.’ In actuality we really do need it. And you know flowers, shrubs, trees and turf provide a very important function in terms of enhancing the quality of life of individuals.
L&L: What are the trends we need to watch in 2013?
Hall: Long term – 20, 30 years – Gen Y is a very interesting demographic segment to study. These kids are the ones that I’m teaching now in the courses here at the university. It’s the sharpest group I’ve ever seen of kids that are out there. I’ve been teaching over 25 years. And they have a serious attitude problem, but they’re incredibly sharp. They want to change the world and they have the ability to do it. They’re that good.
But they’re herders. And that herding mentality, you go to libraries here, they’ve got students all over the place. But they’re not reading books. They’re socializing. They’re in study groups. Most of the market research says that herding behavior is going to carry over into their housing preferences. And they’re gonna want smaller homes that are more environmentally friendly, if they buy or build a home. A lot of them are gonna want to live in walk able neighborhoods and they’re gonna want to be – they want the urban amenities. And so there’s gonna be smaller landscapes. And so we’re gonna have to remain relevant to that generation who didn’t grow up gardening and landscaping with their parents or grandparents like we did.
The author is editor and associate publisher of Lawn & Landscape. Email him at email@example.com.
Get access to Hall’s full reports on the impact and benefits of the green industry at bit.ly/TAMUresearch.