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Lack of topsoil, pesticide ban pose challenge to lawn care professionals in Newfoundland


May 14, 2013
By Mike Jiggens


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A lack of topsoil in Canada’s easternmost province is challenge enough for lawn care professionals. Add to that a provincial ban on pesticide use, and the industry in Newfoundland and Labrador is hard pressed to deliver the level of service customers have come to expect.

This year marks the ban’s second season. Lawn care professionals such as Boyd Loveless, owner/general manager of a Nutri-Lawn franchise in the St. John’s area of Torbay, said the transition into the ban was a little easier for him because of the support system offered by fellow franchisees elsewhere in Canada, but adjustments have had to be made to keep his customers satisfied.

“Our transition into the ban was a little easier for us in the fact that a lot of the franchisees in the Nutri-Lawn system had already gone through it, and I was able to look at what they had done in their markets, whether it was in Halifax or Ontario or wherever,” he said.

Loveless was in Halifax for a regional meeting when he learned the ban had become official. He said if similar bans hadn’t already been in effect in Halifax or Ontario, he would have found dealing with it particularly challenging.

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Nutri-Lawn franchisees who have been dealing with pesticide bans in other locations kept him abreast of what to expect and the things needed to be done to prepare for the loss of such valued tools as 2,4-D.

“It’s still early to see how the ban’s going to affect us. We have lost customers because of it. We’ve lost revenue because of it. The ban was based on political and not scientific facts.”

What makes the ban so personally frustrating for Loveless is that each part of the country currently affected by such legislation has its own unique set of challenges, and not everyone is dealing with the same issues.
For Loveless and all other lawn care professionals in Newfoundland, it’s dealing with a shorter growing season, a lack of topsoil, and soils burdened with low pH levels.

The lawn care season in Newfoundland typically goes from May 1 to the end of October.

The province’s terrain is rocky, and lawns are fortunate to have between two and four inches of soil beneath the surface, “and I’m generous going with the four,” he said.

When sampling soil, he said he must heavily lean onto a probe and twist and turn it just to get a two-inch sample.

With its lack of topsoil, turfgrass lacks the ability to develop a good root system.

“You’re growing grass on top of very little soil and growing grass on rock. Therefore, the roots aren’t getting down very deep within the soil, causing some agronomic problems.”

To put the lack of topsoil into perspective, Loveless said if he was to grow carrots in his backyard, he’d produce something that “Bugs Bunny wouldn’t likely eat.”

Weeds are already a concern because of the poor soil quality and depth, and lawns aren’t as strong, thick and healthy as those in provinces which have superior topsoil, “and that’s because of the lack of soil beneath our lawns.”

The pesticide ban serves to make matters worse, he said, especially considering Newfoundland has a harsher climate than that of Ontario and many other Canadian areas coping with pesticide bans.

“That’s a challenge in itself, too,” Loveless said. “Right off the bat, when we have to dip into our tool box, we have to dig a little deeper because of the fact we have little soil which results in weeds wanting to pop up all over the place.”

Other provinces with better soils at least have something to work with in spite of a ban, but Newfoundland “is behind the eight ball.”

The ban has forced him and other lawn care professionals to work with their customers and better educate them about adopting practices to stay on top of their lawns as best as possible.

About 60 per cent of Loveless’ customer base is residential with a healthy number of commercial properties making up the difference.

In keeping with the Nutri-Lawn program, Fiesta has emerged as the company’s primary tool for combating weeds. Without 2,4-D, he said customers will have to realize they’ll likely see some weeds on their lawns, but each customer may have his own threshold as to how much weed presence is acceptable.

“We’re encouraging our customers to get on with good cultural practices, and we’re preaching mowing properly, watering properly, making sure they have a good fertilizer program, and adding seed, whether it’s by overseeding or slit seeding.”

Loveless’ franchise offers mowing among its services, but not all customers have selected the add-on service as part of their lawn care package. Gardening and tree and shrub maintenance are also offered. Several of Nutri-Lawn’s customers are responsible for their own mowing and irrigation practices.

Changing the mindset of his customers that spraying alone is not the be-all and end-all to ensuring a thick, healthy lawn is an important strategy, and there are other measures customers must adopt to help Fiesta work to the fullest.

“They have to jump on the wagon with the full meal deal.”

For the most part, customers are complying with Loveless’ recommendations which includes the need for liming due to lower-than-normal pH levels. “Our soils are very acidic.”

Competition for Nutri-Lawn in the St. John’s area includes such big players as Weed Man and ServiceMaster Lawn Care as well as other independent companies. To keep a leg up on the competition, customer service is imperative.

“We have to deliver the service that they expect. We have to go above and beyond their expectations.”

In his capacity as owner/general manager, Loveless said he makes regular site visits to ensure his customers are satisfied. If they’re not, Nutri-Lawn will follow up with free service calls to address outstanding issues.
The advantage to being a part of a vast network of franchises under the Nutri-Lawn umbrella is that the company is always on the lookout for the best possible products needed to stay on top of the game in an era when traditional products can no longer be used, he said.

“Whether it’s agronomics or fertilizing or weed control, or whether it’s providing the technology software that we need to deliver our business, they’re there for us whenever we need them. The franchise system with Nutri-Lawn for us has been very, very rewarding.”

Loveless, who has been with Nutri-Lawn for about 22 years and is in his seventh year of owning his own franchise, said he used to offer such added services as winter snow removal, but has since discontinued it.
Providing mowing as a service is not a constant throughout the Nutri-Lawn company, but he said the shorter season and a not overly large population base has forced him to diversify himself to meet the needs of his customers “and be successful in this environment.”

Although the pesticide ban in Newfoundland is still in its relative infancy, Loveless said he is optimistic his business will prevail.

“I think we’ll still be successful in the lawn care industry as long as we continue to adapt. People still need their properties taken care of.”

In general, the Newfoundland economy is doing well, he said, in spite of a “not-so-positive” provincial budget. The lawn care and landscaping industries are benefiting from the economy.

“We’re looking for a positive year. We would love to have the provincial government work with our industry in trying to better service our customers.”

Loveless said he hopes the Newfoundland government will acknowledge that the province is different from other parts of the country in that both its soil depth and pH levels are inferior to those in other parts of the country.

During peak season, Loveless employs 25 to 30 people, including a lawn care specialist, aeration crews and maintenance division crews who are responsible for such practices as mowing and cleanups.

Last year, Loveless was recipient of Nutri-Lawn’s franchise of the year award. He has also been a part of a team of fellow franchisees who have made an annual pilgrimage to the Dominican Republic to help with the efforts at a local orphanage. He described the charitable effort as “a rewarding, eye-opening experience” and one which left him with “an overwhelming feeling.”

“You’ll never, ever forget it.”