IPM: Have We Created A Monster?

The definitions, interpretations and philosophies behind Integrated Pest Management have made the process unclear. Much like a horror movie villian, the debate has taken on a life of its own.

Over the past 20 years, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has attempted to reduce pesticide use, stop the destruction of beneficial insects, cut down on costs to contractors and clients, and benefit the environment.

However, while establishing the IPM concept, the industry has not developed a widely accepted definition of the term. Lawn care operators, educators and product manufacturers have strongly supported their own IPM definitions in one way or another while legislators and environmental activists challenged them and their use of pesticides – no matter how small.

Despite the fact that many IPM meanings exist and that many people believe IPM is a practical approach for controlling landscape pests, weeds and diseases, there is still no single definition that is universally accepted. This lack of focus, some industry members speculate, could be the reason recent legislation is presenting IPM as a lawn care strategy that is more impossible than possible.

RESTRUCTURING IPM. To many people, IPM means anti-pesticides or use of the least toxic pesticides because, throughout the years, classical IPM aimed to reduce pesticide use, pointed out Dave Shetlar, associate professor of landscape entomology, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

"In fact, the measuring stick of IPM success has been whether insecticides, fungicides and herbicides were reduced," Shetlar said. "A common assumption was made: Pesticides, especially insecticides, were bad for people and the environment. This concept was developed at a time when we were using lead arsenate, fungicides containing mercury and organochlorine pesticides. These compounds were showing up in endangered birds, fish and even humans. Pests were becoming resistant, and new pests were becoming a problem because their natural enemies were being destroyed by pesticides. Obviously, faced with these problems, pest managers looked for alternatives."

The threshold concept was the first program to be implemented, Shetlar said, defining this notion as applying pesticides whether or not any bad pests, weeds or diseases were present. "In turf we relied on aesthetic thresholds where the visual damage was too great to tolerate before a pesticide was used," he said.

Next, Shetlar said the industry increased its reliance on non-chemical control tactics, such as cultural (making the environment less suitable for pests using resistant plant material, etc.) and biological controls (encouraging beneficial parasites and insects to control pest populations).

Finally, the industry improved monitoring techniques to determine thresholds and evaluate the performance of non-chemical control tactics, Shetlar said, emphasizing that this has been a landmark development in IPM use. "In landscapes, we now recommend targeting a spray only to the plant that needs it – look before you shoot," Shetlar explained. "Spot treating lawns where grubs are at damaging levels or applying herbicides where weeds are present or likely to emerge are other techniques."

But pesticide use isn’t the only choice that can create damage or improve an environment, remarked Barry Troutman, East Coast chief technical officer, Environmental Care, Orlando, Fla. "To me, the use of pesticides is only one-fifth of the battle."

According to Troutman, IPM includes five key steps: growing the right plants in the right place, creating healthy soil, mowing and pruning properly, watering properly and controlling problem pests, weeds and diseases. "If you find an insect problem, the first response should not be to spray," he explained. "We examine all five areas first, and if the first four steps have been reviewed and the problem still isn’t solved, then we select a pesticide to use. IPM is a thought process you apply when trying to control a problem that comes up; it is figuring out what will do the job quickly with little damage to the environment.

"Our industry does a good job creating healthy soil by encouraging aeration and soil testing," Troutman continued, "and we also do a good job controlling pests, weeds and diseases. But only contractors who work this list from beginning to end are successful."

Other contractors agreed with similar versions of Troutman’s IPM definition, stressing that IPM is a service-oriented program.

"When you’re on a client’s property, you always want to take some kind of action," added Gary LaScalea, president, GroGreen, Plano, Texas. "For example, if you didn’t see any insect problems, you can fertilize the beds or treat the client’s azaleas with iron. IPM is looking for all cultural and nutrient type issues in the landscape."

SCOUTING FOR TROUBLE. Since a service focus drives IPM, the industry’s current labor shortage stalls the program’s development. The quality of worker needed to scout pests, weeds and diseases while consulting with clients also requires consistent training.

"IPM’s greatest challenge is personnel," explained Steve Brady, county agent, Gwinnett County Extension Service, Lawrenceville, Ga. "Companies that don’t have enough personnel don’t make enough scouting visits to properly practice IPM."

"When you are working on a schedule with a certain number of employees and can only stop at a property every 45 to 60 days, you could be missing potential landscape problems," added Steve Farrington, sales representative, Dow AgroSciences, Orlando, Fla. "This means you have to rely on homeowners to scout for you in between your visits and that doesn’t always work to a contractor’s benefit."

IPM training helps lawn care companies produce a higher grade technician, which is crucial to proper IPM performance, commented Gary Tomlinson, director of technical services, seasonal color and arbor care groups, The Morrell Group, a division of Omni Facility Resources, Atlanta, Ga. "Since implementing an IPM approach more than 10 years ago, we’ve increased our training by 50 percent," Tomlinson said. "We have ongoing training with an extra one or two hours per week focused strictly on IPM. We make sure to supplement this with on-the-job training and the use of local extension agents who provide IPM education."

IPM can even save clients and contractors money after the first year, depending on seasonal challenges like weather. Cindy Halm, operations manager, Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care, Rochester, N.Y., quoted an overall 30 to 40 percent drop in pesticide use. These savings are not felt initially, however, due to the cost of IPM training.

Bob Ottley, president, One Step Tree & Lawn Care, N. Chili, N.Y., said he spends $3,000 to $5,000 per person each year for initial IPM training and then $1,000 per person each following year for additional training.

Training technicians,though, also bolsters a company’s reputation, employee morale, retention and customer satisfaction. "Educating our employees does take a lot of time, but we get it back tenfold in customer satisfaction," Halm said. "Our technicians are well-trained and offer consultations on insect and disease problems, watering, pruning, mowing, etc. Our customers are buying that service and expertise."

In addition to training costs, IPM causes equipment costs to rise. Ottley said IPM liquid applications require the use of twin-line hoses. "This is the equivalent of two spray hoses, which doubles your equipment overhead," he explained. "The benefit of IPM isn’t always profit. Initially, there are extra costs, but that levels out after a few years, and contractors will notice savings."

PRODUCT CHANGES. The changing nature of products introduced to the market will also drive or hinder future IPM use. When Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) representatives announced the reexamination of chemistry classes such as organophosphates and carbamates as part of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), it confirmed that new pesticides being registered will have a narrower area of control.

"Trends in pesticide development indicate that new products, while low in toxicity, will be more targeted in their pest spectrum," said Doug Spilker, turf and ornamental research manager, Bayer Corp., Kansas City, Mo. "The challenge is to maximize the strengths of each product. More specific timing recommendations for these products could reduce or delay the need for subsequent applications or rescue treatments."

"The new products provide us with more targeted options," concurred Rick Brandenburg, entomologist, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C. "But now we don’t have a chance to rescue plants from infestations as quickly. And the window of opportunity for controlling pests is smaller."

Many lawn care operators and pesticide manufacturers are also keenly aware of the fact that the FQPA could ultimately result in the cancellation of many pesticide products altogether or severly limit their applications, as it did with chlorpyrifos earlier this year.

"This jeopardizes urban and rural pest management efforts," according to the New York State Turfgrass Association. "Also, as valuable pesticides are lost, pest management experts won’t be able to properly apply IPM, and the environment will suffer."

Despite this grim IPM forecast, Farrington said most lawn care company owners have adjusted well to the changing nature of product availability. However, using new or different products presents challenges.

"Contractors rely on certain products because they’ve used them for years and know they can spray a property and walk away without having to come back and deal with additional problems," Farrington explained. "There is a certain period of unreliability with the new product, which may not have as long of a residual or the same level of control as a previously used product."

Cost also becomes an issue when contractors are forced to use a different product. "Losing a product forces us to use an alternative that may not be as cost effective as the product we were using before," Troutman pointed out. "Switching to a product that costs $2 per square foot instead of 43 cents per square foot is difficult."

CUSTOMER HANDICAP. If lawn care technicians, industry educators and experts, manufacturers, legislators and environmental activists follow varying interpretations of IPM, imagine what customers must think of the process. Most lawn care companies practicing IPM are familiarizing their clients with the concept on a regular basis, but getting them to understand it has been challenging.

"We’ve tried to educate customers on IPM, but I don’t think they fully grasp the idea," Ottley said. "They seem to understand it in tree care, but in lawn care they are used to being told that April is the time to treat crabgrass and August is the time to treat grubs so they don’t believe we can actually scout for these problems.

Customers who are exceptionally hard to educate are those who have been hit hard with an insect problem not caught through the IPM approach and they don’t trust it," Ottley continued. "Even clients who are afraid of pesticides and don’t want you on their property often don’t fully comprehend the fact that with IPM you can use 20 percent less product and ease their pesticide concerns. The idea just doesn’t sink in."

Because IPM is more intense than a typical mowing service, it is harder for customers to grasp, explained Mike Linker, extension agent, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C. "Because of the difficulty in understanding IPM, more hand-holding is needed," he said. "Also, since IPM can cost more, it is hard to explain to customers how another company can offer what appears to be the same service for a lower price."

Viewing the situation from a client’s perspective encourages lawn care operators to understand why IPM might be intimidating. "When I pay a lawn care company to take care of my property, I want a healthy, disease-, weed- and insect-free lawn and landscape," pointed out Kyle Miller, senior technical specialist for turf and ornamentals, BASF Specialty Products, Richmond, Va. "You can tell me you’re trying to reduce inputs, but in the end you have to do what it takes to satisfy me. If a problem gets out of hand, I’m going to tell you IPM is not working. Customers are paying you to take care of their landscapes with a higher level of service than they can perform themselves."

Despite the difficulties with customer communication concerning IPM, Halm said she thinks her customers understand the process. "There’s a difference between practicing and marketing IPM," she said. "We market our level of service. People don’t look at how we accomplish something, they look at how they were treated and how we responded to questions, problems and concerns."

Some lawn care veterans also feel that IPM’s environmentally friendly approach makes it easier to sell to clients. "I’ve never had a customer willing to have four or five pesticide applications on their lawn when one would get the job done," Troutman said.

But maintaining loyal customers after the initial sell presents another problem, Linker said. "Under an IPM program, most of the advantages are evident after three years," he said. "Constantly reminding customers to be patient for a coming pay-off is difficult. Most people who are paying a higher price expect instant results. While some results of IPM can be instant, the full benefits take time."

IPM’s CHANGING FUTURE. IPM "has come a tremendously long way," Troutman pointed out. "We’ll continue to make progress. New developments will improve the efficiency of the way we do business."

However, as legislators and environmental activists continue forward with a movement to reduce or eliminate pesticide use, lawn care companies will bear stricter guidelines to control pesticide applications, Miller said. "Having to notify neighbors more routinely before you spray lawns will increase and IPM will get more intensely managed," he said. "And customers will pay increased prices for lawn care service as this happens."

Ottley said he "fully expects an all-out war" between local environmental activists and clients who want affordable lawn care service in New York. "Because the 48-hour notification law will raise our costs 35 percent, we are going to have to charge more for our services," he said. "Clients believe a licensed applicator should be able to provide a reasonably priced service.

"Plus, using IPM to control pests, weeds and diseases is a time-sensitive approach," Ottley continued. "With this law, I’m not sure we can continue to practice IPM."

While IPM faces extensive restructuring and could fizzle out in the process – a possible reality in New York’s future – contractors across the country will continue to modify and finalize their IPM definitions in the midst of pending legislation.

The industry forgets that this cycle has happened repeatedly over time, and only contractors who learn from this will benefit, according to Shetlar. "History has shown us that when we use the same groups of insecticides time and time again, pests become resistant or the environment reacts in unpredictable ways," Shetlar said. "I vote we keep all the good things we’ve learned about IPM. We should use pesticides wisely, which means using the principles that were developed for IPM when pesticides were less friendly. Don’t use pesticides when they aren’t needed – not because of safety concerns, but for good stewardship reasons."

The author is Managing Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

October 2000
Explore the October 2000 Issue

Check out more from this issue and find you next story to read.

Share This Content