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Landscape & Lawn Care Business Tips Interview with Tom Delaney (PLANET) [Part 2]

In PART 2 of this special Lawn Care Business Tips Interview Tom Delaney of PLANET Landcare Network is interviewed by Lawn Care Millionaire about critical lawn care & landscape industry topics:

  • Pesticide & Fertilizer Concerns
  • Water Restrictions

Tom Delaney is the Director of Government Affairs for PLANET.

Jonathan: Let’s talk a little bit about the pesticide side of the industry and what’s going on there, a few of the challenges. What are the, because I know you have limited time here, the biggest things that we should be looking at as business owners in this industry, when it comes to pesticides, fertilizer legislation?

Tom: I think one of the things that’s concerning to us is the attacks on the turf grass sector of the landscape industry. People are saying that it’s a bad actor, it’s a waste of resources, mowing that puts out pollution and uses fuels, fertilizers and pesticides that may pollute precious water to be used on that resource. It’s going to carry over to the landscape also in water needs and other needs. We’ve had to fight some requirements or recommendations that the new landscapes only have 40% or less of the landscape being in turf grass.

We have to be, as I mentioned, students of the environment and look at all the resources we use to take care of the landscape; and make sure that we’re as professional as we can in what’s being done. The pesticide area in all is just about I think every state requires a licensing requirement, testing and licensing, for people to be able to apply pesticides to the properties of others for a fee. We want to make sure we’re following not only the licensing requirements of the departments of AG or environmental protection or divisions within the states that regulate pesticide applications, but that we’re also following the label, because the label is the law. In fact, when I was a pesticide regulator I used to have to write warning letters to homeowners when we were called out to a site where one homeowner misapplied a product and killed parts of his own landscape or somebody elses landscape. If we ended up interviewing them, found out they didn’t follow the label, then they were cited for misuse of the product as much as a commercial applicator that would misuse it. At the same time as pesticides being input for the landscape, so are our fertilizers. Right now some of the states, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area, because the President declared the Chesapeake Bay as a national treasure, they’re looking at pollution into it from [inaudible 00:38:22] and residential run-off or whatever.

Several states, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, have gotten some fertilizer licensing requirements now. Where you have to take a fertilizer test to continue to put fertilizers out. They’re telling you what type of nitrogen you can put out, how much of it per thousand square foot, and what time of year you can put it out because there’s blackout periods in some of the time. As when the colder areas where there could be frost but there is not, there might be requirements of not being able to put out fertilizer during that period, nitrogen. Many states for years have had phosphorous requirements because of phosphorous run-off into water bodies causing algae bloom. A lot of that phosphorous has been naturally occurring through soil movement and other types of properties, any forest leaves and stuff cause a lot of phosphorous to go to possibly move from a site because of excess storm water run-off of carrying some of these things off.

We’re having to be, some of those same states that passed those phosphorous requirements. Even requiring that the fertilizer that’s being sold have a minimum amount of phosphorous or no phosphorous in there. That part hasn’t affected the industry as much, because most of our industry in soil testing and stuff have found less need for phosphorous than so many years ago, so some of them have stopped putting the phosphorous out. Some of the states will still allow you to do it if you can prove by a soil sample that it’s needed. So we look. One of the things that most people are concerned about is what’s happened in Canada, where most of the provinces, which we call them states, they call them provinces, have outlawed the use of pesticides by homeowners and commercial companies on certain properties. [inaudible 00:40:41] properties most pesticides at all.

That’s really affected a lot of companies in Canada getting out of the business, selling or just having problems with the value of their company anymore. Some of the companies in some states and some groups are pushing organic applications. I always ask a company that says they’re organic what portion of your program is organic? Are you just talking about your fertilizer, or are you talking about pesticides? Because there’s literally no post-application weed control products for the commercial market that actually works. The only thing some people use is corn glutamate, and even the inventor of it, Nick Christian from Iowa State University, says it’s not really intended for commercial use; because you have to put too much of it out and it’s too costly. It’s got some residential uses.

The industry is concerned to have states getting pushed to pass any kind of requirements that will limit or ban pesticide use. Most states have what’s called pesticide pre-emption, where local governments can’t pass pesticide requirements because it’s pre-empted by state law.

If the legislature ends up passing something at the state level, then all those other requirements won’t help if that gets passed. We have a different legislative system than Canada has, but we still have to beware of legislation, and that’s some of what I do is I track any piece of state legislation that’s introduced that has the word “pesticide”, “fertilizer” or some order requirements in there, that I get a copy if and look at it. Which in addition some other associations and groups are also monitoring some of those requirements. Again, we have to watch. Some states like New York have had laws passed like neighborhood notification, or allowed local governments to pass a set requirement. Where you had to notify certain property owners within distances of your application before your application was made. We’re trying to limit any restrictive requirements on pesticides or fertilizers, and certainly any bans that may be introduced out there. It again behooves you to, a lot of times these laws and regulations are sometimes passed or introduced because of a possible misuse of a product and they end up saying, “Well, because this one person misused it, so many more people must be misusing it that we don’t know about. Let’s not have any of them introduced or passed because of somebody in the industry not doing what they’re supposed to and following the label or the recommendations or the state laws that are out there on pesticides.”

Just like we have associations so do legislatures, and when one passes in one state, I can guarantee you that legislators in the other states know about that piece of legislation and whatever and what provisions are on it. They as copycats and want to keep their job to show they’ve passed something, that’s why some of them end up introducing some of this legislation. We do have some local governments now, that are trying to stop pesticide use on their own county or property or city property, which of course they have their prerogative to, but what we’re concerned about is the rationale of why they’re doing it or some of them trying to push organic control, based on not a good set of criteria or circumstances of understanding what’s truly organic and what works and what doesn’t work. We also have a document on our website that discusses organics; and what is synthetic organic, what is organic based, and what customers should ask and what companies might follow in organic fertilizer application.

There’s some niche markets like the northeast where more organic programs are requested by the public, but a lot of companies offer it but the demand is still not there. Then again I question when you use that term if you’re just talking about a fertilizer program or what type of pesticide application you might be referring to in organic. Because even the organic insecticides, organic does not mean the product is safe. You can pollute with an organic, and some people are allergic to some of the organic products just like people might be allergic to a synthetic product. It’s usually not the source, and the plant doesn’t know the difference of what you’re using. We have members that do both, and you’ve got to answer what your customers demand and what they want. Some of them choose the program and then switch back, or stay with the program until a problem develops and then ask you to come out and take care of the particular weed problem or insect problem. In Canada, the properties look terrible. There’s dandelions all over the place. They call whiteouts now when all the dandelions turn to seed, and all of a sudden the wind blows across and it’s like a whiteout with so many of them out there. Sports fields, it’s going to take a bunch of money to put some of the sports fields back into the shape they were before they stopped using the products. They’re using what’s called Ironed [SP] now, a weed control product that’s iron that has some control of the weeds, but they have to make several applications and it still doesn’t work as well as some of the others. Some of the provinces are allowing them to use the herbicide that’s made up of iron.

Jonathan: Has there been push back on that program, or is it pretty much at this point the way it is, for the long term?

Tom: I think a lot of agencies, government agencies, are looking back now at what the results of not having used products for so many years there. I think some of them are questioning them, and especially if there’s some insect or grub attack and all of a sudden somebody’s landscape is totally wiped out. A lot of the rationale that they used wasn’t scientific data. Just because you find something on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s valid. All the data that is used and required for products to be registered with the EPA, have to follow good laboratory practices and have procedures to be followed and have to be peer reviewed studies. Some of the studies other people promote and report are not peer reviewed, or just don’t fit the situation or are exaggerated.

Jonathan: I feel like for a lot of companies, especially the younger guys in business, meaning their businesses are younger and smaller. They don’t feel like there’s much they can do, they just have to deal with it. What are your suggestions for all of us in the business, in regards to how we can basically not just wait for legislation to happen but essentially be involved?

Tom: Again, back to good management practices and using integrated pest management. We all know that the products cost us money, so we all certainly try and use the process of only using them when they’re needed and using the right products. We also try to get more people to be involved in grassroots. That’s making sure that you are letting your elected officials know who you are and what type of business you’re in, how many customers you have, what your payroll is and stuff. You actually represent as a business owner, more than a single voter. Because you’ve got employees and customers, and you’re also helping the economy in the city and state that you’re in. Make sure your legislators know about that so they can even contact you when they see a piece of legislation that knows it’s going to affect your business or your type of business. We have a grassroots action at work on our website, and we’re trying to sign more people up to pay attention to when a piece of legislation, help us find local. There is no way to track local legislation other than people monitoring newspapers and seeing what’s on your agenda for your local county or city. It’d be a good idea to keep an eye on that, because something would be proposed and passed before anybody finds out about it at the local government.

On the state government, we have a little better tracking system to find out about that. The federal government, when you want something it moves too slow, and when you don’t it moves a little too fast on the things. That’s why we have legislative day on the Hill for the past 23 years to bring members in. This year we were lobbying the H2B issue, we were lobbying the NPDS permits. Where some states require a permit before you can make an application near water bodies, and also we were encouraging people to learn about Lyme disease and tick control that affects our members out in the landscape. I’ve noticed, I think Texas is increasing with tick population and so are many other states. Educate your workers that are out in the landscape that get into areas where they might get exposed to ticks and end up with Lyme disease, which is very treatable but very hard to diagnose and know. These are some of the issues we took to the Hill this year.

Jonathan: That’s good.

Tom: Got to be involved. You’ve got to show up and follow the notices and the actions that we sent out and work with your state associations to help monitor what’s going on in your state and local governments.

Jonathan: That’s great. I’ve kept you a long time, one more question here. Kind of goes with the pesticide question and anything here from the water side. I know here, I’m in Texas, we had severe drought. We in a sense are out of our drought, at least in the part of north Texas where I’m at. However, we’re still under water restrictions, you can only water twice a week. That’s been in force for a while. What are you seeing around the country from this viewpoint of water and water management? Is there anything that we need as business owners to be aware of and be thinking about?

Tom: Well, different states have dealt with different water issues on droughts and stuff. Some of the states, the industry has gotten very much involved with the state in implementing water restrictions, so new plantings may be able to have some watering, or that there’s other requirements that don’t put people out of business when it’s not necessary. There’s been a lot of differences state by state, and as some states let communities regulate it, so there’s been differences out there. It’s been a tough year, and we’ve been through some of this before. Some of the guys say their saving grace has been renovations, lawn renovations after these situations, have gotten back up to their level of profit by doing that. Nobody wants to have to do that, but certainly lawn renovations are a question to do that. We’re getting more involved in water needs. There’s actually a group I’m involved with, I don’t know if you all have heard what ANSI standards are, and ANSI standards are professional standards that are developed that have to be followed under certain conditions by certain industries.

We’re trying to work with the American Society of Agriculture and Biological Engineers. These are all the AG engineers at the universities and stuff and some others. To come up with what are the true water requirements of the landscapes? We know too many irrigation systems are improperly calibrated, people don’t know how to operate them, they over water and cause problems. We’ve got to get smarter about watering when it’s raining with those types of controllers and smart irrigation controllers, and do a better job of irrigation and irrigation equipment. We’re going to work and get the science of what are the actual water needs of the turf grass and more landscape plants. A lot of the turf grass we know the ET, evapotranspiration rate, what is the water requirements of the turf grass, and know when it can go dormant and when it’s got to be watered before it dies and stuff. We’ve got to have better information about the landscape plants and all the turf grasses and be smarter about what we plant in the landscape and how we care for it, so that we use what the minimum requirements are and not the maximum requirements. Because the toughest resource we have is having enough water. We worry about oil wars and stuff, I think people are going to be more concerned about, as time goes by, having enough water to grow the crops we need and take care of the landscapes that are environmentally and economically of importance to our customers and the environment.

Jonathan: A lot of companies, a lot of business owners, they probably know they should be involved, they know they should be paying attention to these issues. I’ve heard it before, there’s a number of guys I’ve talked to over time and I understand what they’re saying. They’re concerned about getting involved or being visible. They want to keep a low profile and keep their company flying under the radar. Is there anything you can say to that philosophy and that mindset? Because there’s a lot of guys that are concerned about being, like I said, too noticeable in the industry and speaking up against things and taking a strong stand. How should they be thinking about that?

Tom: I’ve heard some of the same thing, and if you’re not speaking for your own industry, who’s speaking for you? You’ve got to take a stand. If you’re following all the laws and regulations and become educatable about how to answer some of the concerns people bring to you where you can point to information and whatever, if you don’t care for your industry enough to do the things you have to do, Like I said, it takes grassroots. It takes a lot of people. Too many people either point to their association or point to the bigger companies and say, ‘They’re going to do it for us.’ Well, it takes grassroots. Legislators only deal with their constituents that vote for them and get involved, and here we’re coming up on the elections again. First of all, if you’re not registered you can’t vote, so you need to register, encourage your employees and family members to register. Then go out there and get educated on who’s running for office and what their positions are, and find out how they feel about the issues that affect your industry and how they’re helping businesses; since small businesses are the workforce of our country, the machine that gets our country going again, the economy, small businesses. If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, you shouldn’t have to hide and be low profile. You get more high profile you get more customers, too. Legislators are customers also. Get them as your customer, or if they’re your customer, talk to them about your issues and make sure that you’re taking care of their property the right way.

Jonathan: That’s great. Well, I appreciate all your time. Is there anything else that you want to say or that everyone needs to know before we get off phone?

Tom: No, like I said, you’ve got to get involved in your business and in your industry. We’ll all be better off for it and we’ll also get the economy going again.

Jonathan: I couldn’t agree more. That’s great. Well Tom, thank you very much for doing this, thanks for spending an hour with me. I know everybody’s appreciative.

Tom: That’s good. We appreciate those that are members and encourage more to join their state and national PLANET association. Thanks again.

Jonathan: Thank you. Great, thanks for doing that. I appreciate that a lot. I’ll get that out there in the next couple days. I’ll clean up the beginning and ending just a bit and I’ll get it out on Andrew’s marketing expert site, Lawn Care Millionaire and then it goes out of course to all our Service Auto-pilot clients.

Tom: If you get any feedback give it back to me, so next time we can make it even better.

Jonathan: That would be wonderful, I’d love to. I will do that. I think these are important topics, and every one of them involves our clients, whether they realize it or not. A lot of guys feel like they just don’t pay attention to this stuff, and man, it’s important.

Tom: We know some of them are living from hand to mouth, paycheck to paycheck because of the economy, but they’ve got to look a little long term also. You can’t burn bridges behind you and can’t let the H2B program go by the wayside because it won’t be there when you really want it.

Jonathan: When they need it. I agree. Great, well thank you for this. I will absolutely give you any feedback I have. Are you generally at most of the conferences?

Tom: Yeah, I’ll be at the GIC and then of course our lawn care’s summit down there in Florida in January. There’s occasionally a few that I may not be involved with, but most of them I’m there. Also student career days is a great thing to participate in too.

Jonathan: I don’t know what that is. What is that?

Tom: That’s the Olympics of landscaping.

Jonathan: Okay, I don’t even know about it.

Tom: Look on our website. It’s student career days, and it rotates through different states where they take it on. It’s at the University of Auburn this year, and the landscape students from different universities come and compete in backing up equipment, laying out irrigation pipeline in a parking lot, designing landscapes and competing against each other. Just doing interviews, business interviews and stuff. They give out PLANET scholarships there to some of the winners, and then the universities compete as overall winners. It’s been out there for many years, and like I said it rotates through. It was at Brigham Young a few years ago and at Michigan and at Georgia. This next year it’s at Auburn in Alabama.

Jonathan: Interesting. Just quick question for you. The Brickmans of the world that just need a lot of guys for maintenance on the labor side, what are they doing these days? Are they just aggressively advertising for employees, are they using H2B still?

Tom: They don’t seem to be using H2B anymore. I don’t even think they’re using any anymore. I don’t know whether they relied on it mostly for contracts to bid on, if they got a contract them they used them and if they didn’t they didn’t. I don’t know particularly on the advertising. Valley Crest used to use it too, and I think they’re a little concerned. I do know some of the companies too are now using e-verify because they’re concerned about losing face with customers and contracts and everything else if they get raided and lose a lot of employees. There’s not that many employees out there that want the job, so I don’t know what. Of course each market is a little different in stuff of where they find people or how many people that they need. I don’t particularly know anything that they’re doing that the rest isn’t doing.

Jonathan: Okay. I believe they probably just have very aggressive programs that are constantly looking and recruiting.

Tom: They have the full-time HR department so they can spend a little more time in looking at places. That’s what the student career days is for, too. One of the events they have there is job fairs, and our members have booths there. And they interview the cream of the crop from the universities there from the students.

Jonathan: That’s actually what made me think of that question. I was looking at it on the site as you were talking about it, and that’s how I thought of that. That’s great.

Tom: Trying to find some of these FFA students. Of course they’re younger and it’s tough getting them on equipment and stuff, but so many of them are going to college and they’re great students and want to get out there and work. In fact, the biggest FFA chapter in the country is in Philadelphia in a greenhouse program. That’s a source of young workers. Of course some of them may work during the summer too, but the age requirement is a problem with some of the equipment until they get old enough.

Jonathan: Right. Well thank you again. I know you’ve been on the phone with me here for quite a while, so I really appreciate it. I’m going to be at the two, GIC and I’ll be there in January as well, so if I see you I’ll stop and say hi.

Tom: Okay, sounds good. Appreciate it.

For more information on PLANET Landcare Network and how you can get involved visit: https://www.landcarenetwork.org/

Andrew Pototschnik is the founder of Lawn Care Marketing Expert, the largest online marketing agency in North America specializing in marketing strategies for the lawn care and landscaping industries.

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