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11/15/2014 - Beyond Manure
By Dianna Borsi O'Brien
Mark Tamn, president of Freedom Lawns, didn’t start out in the natural lawn care business. For decades, he worked for national lawn care firms and even owned a large traditional lawn care firm himself.
Then, in 1999, Tamn decided to take a different approach to lawn care.
“I believed there was a better way that was more sustainable,” he says. Tamn also thought “going green”—i.e., using fewer synthetic inputs—would give him a marketing niche to help his Hampstead, N.C.-based firm stand out among other lawn care companies.
It worked. Today, his company employs 40 to 50 workers, serving predominately residential clients, and it offers franchises opportunities for others who want to do business his way. He has nine franchises operating in the Carolinas.
As he likes to put it, “We were green before green was cool.”
You could say the organic, natural and/or biological lawn care business is growing and is likely to stay that way. Suppliers and end users say they’re seeing increased demand, increased sales and more products available than ever, a trend they expect to continue.
Take Bill Hoke, for example. He started his company, NexGreen, in January 2013 with three trucks and a warehouse. Now, he expects 2014 revenue for his lawn care firm to hit $1.6 million at his Columbus, Ohio, location and $800,000 for the Frederick, Md., office, with both locations offering lawn care and tree and shrub services to an 80/20 mix of residential and commercial customers.
“Green” looks good on smaller firms, too. In 2013, Nathan Brandon started Pure Green in Franklin, Tenn., after selling his interest in a traditional lawn care company. Today, he has three full-time workers, one part-time worker and serves both residential clients and commercial properties. He’s seeing more clients asking for a more natural approach.
WHY GO "GREEN" NOW?
Many lawn care firms say customers are requesting natural approaches to fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, the choice of organic, natural and biological products are better than ever, says Barrett Ersek, CEO of Holganix, a supplier of bionutritional products headquartered in Glen Mills, Pa.
In the past, natural products were smelly, clumping or inconsistent, Ersek says. In the last 10 years, more “bridge products” have been developed, providing lawn care firms with the ease of synthetics and the benefits of organics. Founded in 2010, Holganix was recently named to Inc. magazine’s 500 list, a ranking of the country’s fastest growing privately held firms.
Long gone are the meager offerings of compost tea or dried manure. Options are available from a range of suppliers and include products that strengthen the plants and amend the soil, including kelp, sugars, humates, polymer gels, amino acids, bacteria and fungi such as mycorrhizae.
The products and the forms available are improved, says Bob Bauwens, manager of national and international accounts at Lebanon Turf, based in Lebanon, Pa. Lebanon Turf has been manufacturing fertilizer products since 1947 and distributes worldwide.
For example, Bauwens notes, fungi (mycorrhizae) can be provided in granular or dry soluble form, making it easier for lawn care professionals to use the new offerings.
Clare Reinbergen, president of Growth Products in White Plains, N.Y., agrees there are more options on the market that fall into the “natural” category than ever before.
“There are so many new things we can source,” she says. Growth Products, founded in 1984, has seen sales double in the last five years and now distributes to all 50 states and exports to 40 countries.
HOW THE NEW PRODUCTS WORK
Some of the new products strengthen the plants so they can withstand stress, pests and drought or take up nutrients more effectively. Other products improve the soil ecology, putting bacteria, fungi and other substances into the soil so plants can make more effective use of the nutrients in the soil.
Often the products are added to traditional lawn care programs, with suppliers touting their ability to cut down on the amount of synthetic inputs needed.
Yet, lawn care firms say organics aren’t money savers, at least in the short run. They often cost more than traditional products.
Companies going this route look at it from a bigger picture point of view.
For example, Hoke says his company’s hybrid natural/traditional approach has resulted in an industry-bucking 93 percent client-retention rate, allowing his firm to spend less money on marketing and more on putting out a good product.
NO SILVER BULLET
Despite the new and improved organic, natural and biological products, no one recommends a one-size-fits all or even an all-natural approach.
“We’re not 100 percent organic,” Tamn says. “We do use some synthetic products, but we use the safest products that lead to the best end result.”
Like most firms, he recommends a hybrid approach, which typically echoes a traditional approach in terms of the number of applications.
Yet, going organic does call for extra effort in terms of communication and training, Tamn adds. His workers have to be ready to coach customers about proper mowing and watering and teach homeowners to notify Freedom Lawns when they see something that may need to be nipped in the bud, literally.
“You also need a very strong IPM (integrated pest management) policy,” he says, with workers well trained so they know when to pull out the pesticides and when to let nature take its course, such as when a disease shows up but may soon be restrained by a change in seasons.
When it comes to marketing organics, whether to lawn care firms or homeowners, the message needs to be honed and simplified, Reinbergen adds. “It’s not like you can say, ‘Here’s a bag of fertilizer,’” she says. “It takes awhile to educate consumers. It’s so hard to explain what’s in it.”
Though a number of drivers could boost the trend toward natural lawns, including regulations, the biggest factor, lawn care pros say, is consumer demand.
“There’s more awareness,” Tamn says. “First-time homeowners have more information than 10 years ago. And green is cool.”
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