Going green-er

Going green-er

Biofertility programs give LCOs more options and can open new markets.

June 30, 2011

Chris Koelling recently had a customer cancel her lawn care service with his company, giving him no explanation.

“I never knew why,” says Koelling, the owner of Mt. Vernon, Ill.-based Lawn Perfection. “I thought it was to save money.”

He caught up with her and discovered the real reason she cancelled her service was that she didn’t like chemicals. 

“I jumped on that and said we’d be happy to put you on an organic program that has no chemicals,” he says. “She signed up like that.”

Lawn care operators are hearing from more clients who are saying they enjoy having an alternative to traditional synthetic fertilizers and other lawn care products.

Biofertility programs – which use living microorganisms to enhance the soil structure – are organic and can reduce the need for pesticide use on the lawns, lawn care operators say. Some LCOs have just begun using the program this year, so it’s still too early to tell what the customer satisfaction level will be. But early word suggests they might be on the right track.

“A customer just called and thanked me,” says Eric Greenwood, owner of Heritage Lawn Care in Ann Arbor, Mich. “She has pets and liked the idea behind (organics). She always worried because she had a grub control program and needed to treat it without harming the pets. We were able to lower the amount of grub control by 80 percent in a year.”
Koelling has received positive feedback as well.

“We have a client who has a daughter with a lung disease and didn’t want any chemicals on the lawn,” he says, adding the client was glad to hear there was an organic program. “The feedback I’m getting is, ‘This is great you’re doing this; I didn’t know there was another option (besides synthetics). I didn’t think we could have a nice lawn.’”

Customers like the fast-acting nature of the biofertility program, Greenwood says. “It’s the only product available in organic form that can take effect immediately,” he adds, citing many products that need warm temperatures to be activated – something northern climates sometimes lack.

Then there’s another portion of clients that just want to be better stewards of the environment.

“Some people are conscious about what we’re doing, as far as the environment is concerned. I think environmental concerns are going to play a bigger role,” says Koelling, who adds Illinois doesn’t have the stringent regulations regarding pesticide and fertilizer use that other states have been adopting.

Other customers might be leaning toward organics, but want to wait for visible confirmation of effectiveness before jumping on board.

“Customers ask if you have proven results, but my education says it’s going to work,” says Greenwood, who just started a biofertility program this year. “Everyone’s trusted my judgment so far. I’ve had no callbacks in the first two weeks.”

How to add it.

Until recently, Ryan Wilmott had never been sold on the effectiveness or cost efficiency of organic fertilizers, and he didn’t want to take the risk of adding the products to his service offerings. But things have changed.

“We’re 100 percent organic, as far as fertilizers go,” says Wilmott, owner of Lehigh Valley, Pa.-based R-Green Organic Turf Fertilization Systems.

The reason for the change of heart, Wilmott says, is bionutrition. The method – sometimes called biofertility, or “bugs in jugs” – applies living microorganisms to turf, trees and shrubs. They change the biology of the soil and help facilitate nutrient uptake.

Wilmott and others have seen positive results from using the nutrient as their fertilizer program.

The longer it’s used, the more it feeds the soil and leads to increased insect and disease suppression, says Tom Winkler, owner of Go Organic Lawn Care in Haledon, N.J. As a result, lawns on a biofertility program don’t need as much pesticide or traditional fertilizer.

In fact, Wilmott credits bionutrition for reducing his preemergent weed control product usage by 80 to 95 percent.

Nathan Brandon, owner of Nashville, Tenn.-based Turf Managers, says  biofertility allows him to lower the level of nitrogen input in applications.
Brandon also notes that he’s able to combat a disease that is prevalent in the mid-Tennessee region.

“In yards that have been on the program for a while, the severity of brown patch outbreaks is less severe than clients starting with nothing done or who are on a traditional fertilizer program,” he says.  “Years of biostimulant applications are getting the soil working like it’s supposed to. The good bacteria and microbes in the soil are working against the brown patch.”

While the benefits might make bionutrition seem like a no-brainer, some lawn care companies have to take a hard look at the program before committing. There usually are equipment costs involved.
First, companies who have always applied granular fertilizers will have to make the switch to liquid application equipment. Existing sprayer equipment usually has to be updated with nozzles with bigger holes so the living microorganisms can safely flow through without being killed.

“It wasn’t a cheap undertaking, but we look at the long-term of it, and it works,” Winkler says. “It’s a huge benefit to the environment as well.”

Wilmott ends up saving in other areas, he says. He applies the bionutrients in fewer applications than he would with synthetic fertilizer, and he needs less preemergent, so he saves in the cost of materials and the labor to apply them.

The cost of synthetic fertilizer has skyrocketed in recent years; a bionutrition program achieves the same goal – a green lawn – but without the roller coaster prices.

Cost savings or not, Greenwood  figures his company, Heritage Lawn Care, can charge more for the biofertility program because of its benefits and “green” cachet. He also lets customers choose if they want the organic or traditional treatments.

Most of the time, a green lawn is what is most important to customers – not the type of fertilizer program being used, Brandon says.

That’s why he automatically employs a biofertility program instead of giving the customer the choice between this method and a traditional synthetic fertilizer program.

For customers who are organics-conscious, it’s a way for the company to differentiate itself from the competition. For the rest of the clients, it still achieves the results they’re seeking, Brandon argues.

“At the end of the day, from what we have figured out, 95 percent of clients don’t care what we use,” he says. “As long as their lawn looks good, they’re happy.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Lakewood, Ohio.