By Mike Jiggens
A veteran of 33 years with the City of Hamilton’s parks department has become the first president of the newly renamed Sports Turf Canada.
Tennessee Propedo, manager for the past three years of the city’s parks and cemeteries, succeeded Paul Gillen in the spring as president of the Sports Turf Association which has plotted a new future direction for itself, beginning with a new name.
Sports Turf Canada was chosen as the association’s new moniker to better reflect its foray into becoming a Canada-wide organization. Based in Guelph, Ont., the former Sports Turf Association was seen largely as a provincial entity even though it long supported sports turf managers from across Canada.
In recent years, the association became the Canadian international affiliate organization of the Sports Turf Managers Association in the United States in 2009, and then expanded beyond Ontario into Atlantic Canada in 2011 and formed a partnership agreement with the Western Canada Turfgrass Association (WCTA) in 2012.
Propedo said he is looking forward to his year in office as president of the 25-year-old association, ready for the challenge of taking Sports Turf Canada into a new direction.
“I’d like to make some major inroads in the prairie provinces and boost our membership there,” he said, suggesting there is a “gap” between Winnipeg and Calgary. “There’s seems to be a disconnect there, and there’s no real organization out there (in Western Canada) other than the WCTA.”
Propedo said closing the gap between British Columbia and Ontario will help to solidify the association’s position. He said he also hopes to get a foothold into Quebec.
Dialogue with industry suppliers, school boards and others involved in the industry has been taking place in Western Canada in an attempt to get a feel for what is happening in that part of Canada and to determine how best Sports Turf Canada can serve sports turf managers in the prairie provinces.
Propedo said he wishes to see the association’s educational programs expand to both coasts.
Current educational opportunities include a sports turf program at the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium, the association’s annual field day and other offerings during the year.
Traditionally, the president of Sports Turf Canada will serve a one-year term in office, but some past presidents have served two or more years under certain circumstances. Gillen, who recently retired after a lengthy career with AerWay, remained in office an additional three years to oversee the association’s expanded branding across Canada as well as solidifying its affiliation with the STMA. Propedo said he expects his term to be one year only unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
Sports Turf Canada’s new vice-president is Tab Buckner, manager of parks operations and cemetery services for the City of Langley, B.C. One of the association’s newest board directors is Gorden Horsman of the City of Moncton, N.B. Both positions are representative of the association’s expansion beyond Ontario’s borders.
Although Propedo was not a part of the founding of the association a quarter of a century ago, he praised the efforts of those who had the vision for establishing a body whose mission was to promote safer sports fields.
“What those people thought when they sat down in that cottage 26 years ago to where we are now is incredible. It’s a testament to their guidance and direction.”
Now that the association has become a nationwide body, not all board directors will be able to attend regular meetings in person, but 21st century technology will allow for computer linkups to ensure all board members have a say in all matters before the board.
Not all parts of Canada will be dealing with the same issues when it comes to promoting safer sports turf. Some provinces have no cosmetic pesticide bans in place to challenge sports turf managers. Propedo said he likes the direction British Columbia has taken in its approach to dealing with pesticides which he feels is a fair compromise between an outright ban, such as that enacted in Ontario, and having no ban at all which is currently the situation in the prairies.
“You would think that B.C., of all the provinces, would have the most stringent legislation. But they did an in-depth study, had professionals speak about it from both angles, and what they’ve done is they’ve allowed pesticides to be used, but by licensed professionals.”
He said he wishes Ontario could have seen fit to have implemented a law similar to British Columbia’s.
“There was a lot of misinformation thrown out when they did the legislation in Ontario. In my personal opinion, it was rushed through and it wasn’t done from a scientific standpoint. It was a knee-jerk reaction.”
He cited statistics presented to the provincial government which suggested the incidence of childhood leukemia and other diseases were on the increase, but he added those numbers were never used in proportion to a rising population which paints a more accurate picture.
“It’s something that completely befuddles me.”
Ontario voters went to the polls in June to elect a new provincial government, but none of the major parties seemed interested in revisiting the pesticide ban to perhaps amend it to emulate the law as adopted in British Columbia. Progressive Conservative MPP Ted Chudleigh of Halton has been an ally of the turf industry in Ontario, calling for an amendment to the current pesticide act. In his defence of the industry, he has quipped the official flower of Ontario ought to be changed from the trillium to the dandelion.
Propedo said he would like to see a study conducted to determine the number of children who are allergic to certain weeds or to bee stings due to the infestation of weeds on fields and parks. He said there is scientific research available which proves that the more dandelions and other weeds that are present on fields, the greater the occurrence of allergy problems.
Dr. Eric Lyons of the University of Guelph is looking into the allowable infiltration of weeds threshold before it becomes a safety issue for athletes. Dense weed growth presents a tripping and slipping hazard which can be injurious to athletes’ knees and ankles.
Propedo said the pesticide ban in Ontario, which came into effect in 2009, was something for which he had prepared in his home municipality.
“Prior to the pesticide ban, we were following an IPM (integrated pest management) program where we were just doing spot spraying because my predecessors had the vision in regard to being culturally sound and being responsible for the public.”
The City of Hamilton began its IPM program in the 1990s, spot spraying only on an as-needed basis. As part of the program, field reports were compiled and levels of weed infestation on all fields were regularly monitored.
“For Class A and B fields, we are still healthy. There aren’t a lot of dandelions. Where we get into our C fields and passive parkland, we figure in another four years we will be past the 70 to 80 per cent threshold of weeds.”
When that happens, the municipal government will need to make a decision about how it wishes to combat the problem. Last year, Propedo presented to council an IPM-IPHC (integrated plant health care) plan but admitted it was cost-prohibitive because it meant bulking up on such cultural practices as aerifying, overseeding, irrigating and improving drainage. The plan would also have involved more mowing and increased labour. Although council agreed with the principle of the plan, it lacked the funding and resources to implement it.
In Hamilton, soil testing is conducted every three years on its athletic fields. A fertility program is then devised to cater to the plant’s needs according to area. Both last year and again this year, no potassium was down on any of the city’s fields.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve,” Propedo said, explaining he wishes not to do anything that might fly in the face of the watershed act. He said he anticipates both phosphorus and potassium might be next in line to be banned.
Propedo is responsible for the upkeep of 255 baseball diamonds in Hamilton as well as 201 other fields used for soccer, football, Australian rules football and cricket. The latter, he said, is becoming an increasingly popular sport and already has three pitches for play.
“It’s (cricket) probably expanding quicker than soccer and baseball.”
Much of the sport’s increased popularity is due to the number of immigrants who have settled into the area from countries where cricket is revered. Last year, seven players from the Canadian national cricket team came from the Hamilton area. Propedo said he hopes Hamilton can attract some competitive “friendly” matches in the near future, and the city’s Confederation Park is currently in the process of being redesigned to include a championship cricket pitch.
Cricket players, he said, expect the outfield area to be similar to a golf putting green—playing short and fast—and want the wicket area to be like a ball diamond’s infield where it is packed hard with just a slight bit of grade to give the ball some spin.
In addition to the more than 450 sports fields under his wing, Propedo also looks after the ongoing maintenance of 76 cemeteries of which 16 are still active. He estimates about 65 per cent of his time is spent looking after the sports fields component of his portfolio.
He said he doesn’t get the opportunity to get out of his office and onto the grounds as much as he would like to, but makes the effort to get out to check on his fields whenever possible.
“I’m very fortunate to have great staff that are very passionate and love what they do. They’re out there giving the City of Hamilton’s taxpayers quality service.”
The spring of 2014 was similar to that of 2009 when extremely wet conditions prevented mowers from getting out onto the fields without causing rutting. Propedo said user groups were going “ballistic” because so many games had to be rescheduled.
A problem he faces regularly is the amount of overplay on his fields.
“On any given week, the soccer and football fields out there could have 40 hours-plus of play.”
A high school track and field meet went on as scheduled on May 21 at Mohawk Park in spite of the field succumbing to a torrential rainfall the night before. The park’s all-weather track allowed the running events to continue as scheduled, but the condition of the inner field needed addressing before any events could take place.
“We cut back on some of the field events just because by the time they’d be done (with the throwing events), it would look like a herd of cattle had gone through there.”
The field events for the meet were simply delayed and not outright canceled.
High school athletics present a particular challenge, Propedo said.
“The ideal time to be doing that is in the summer months. School is out. They’re looking at the April-May window and then the September-October-November window which, for a turf grower, aren’t the ideal time periods. So trying to fit everybody’s schedules in to jibe with the seasons is very difficult, and that’s why we’ve done the artificial field to help accommodate those overruns.”
The city looks after one synthetic turf field located in the Heritage Green sector of Hamilton. It has allowed the city to better manage early and late season play.
Although synthetic turf fields were once frowned upon by proponents of natural turf, technological advances in recent years have contributed greatly to increased player safety and playability. Sports Turf Canada, in fact, has embraced synthetic fields not only for those reasons, but because they allow sports turf managers to better maintain the quality of their natural fields, especially with rainouts and early and late season play.
In addition to the city-operated synthetic field, seven other artificial fields are located in Hamilton but are maintained by the local school board.
Propedo began his turf career in Hamilton 33 years ago as a labourer, working on its ski hills and cutting grass.
“I’ve always been in the parks in the summertime. In the shoulder seasons, I’ve gone cemeteries, roads, ski hills, the arenas…”
Before taking on his current post as manager of parks and cemeteries three years ago, Propedo was a superintendent responsible for both parks and roads applications in Stoney Creek, and was a supervisor in charge of east end parks for the City of Hamilton before that.
He joined the Sports Turf Association in 2001 as a member and later became a board member. The city had membership in the association since its inception, but Propedo became Hamilton’s first board member, rising from the ranks of director, to vice-president and then president.
He said it was his lifelong passion for turf which motivated him toward becoming involved at the board level.
“I’ve always been a lover of turf,” he said, adding he has always been an avid golfer, baseball player and umpire. “It was a culmination of being a sports enthusiast and also a turf enthusiast. It was a perfect mix.”