Pest wars:
Marketing successful and practical IPM strategies

By Sarah Willis

Over the last decade, lawn care operators (LCOs) have completely restructured their approach to lawn care. Environmental, fiscal and labour issues have coalesced to create a demanding atmosphere in which LCOs are expected to be both effective and competitive.

     The latest buzzword on everyone’s lips is Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. In a U.S. survey of lawn care companies conducted last year, every respondent considered their program to be IPM oriented.

     Respondents commented: “Reputable companies don’t do blanket pesticide applications anymore.”

“We treat only when pests are active.”
“Most insecticides, herbicides and fungicides are spot-treated on an as-needed basis.”

     Clearly the lawn care industry, on the whole, is a knowledgeable, well-informed group who demonstrates a strong commitment toward the environment. IPM provides LCOs with tools to more responsibly manage pests in the landscape.

     The problem with IPM is that no one can agree on an official definition of the phrase. Every proponent of IPM in the ornamental horticulture industry has his or her own meaning for the term. To some, IPM means using no pesticides at all. However, while the aim of IPM is to reduce pesticide use, horticultural chemicals remain an important tool in all of the generally accepted definitions of IPM.

     While LCOs agree that IPM principles should have a role in the practice of their business, the difficulty lies in applying the principles to a commercial business. One company that has done this successfully is One Step Tree & Lawn Care of North Chili, New York. Owner Bob Ottley started offering a form of IPM in the early 80s. At that time, competition for business was tough. After analyzing the situation, Ottley decided the best tactic was to set his company apart by offering value-added services rather than competing on the basis of lowest price. “We started looking at IPM because at that time in New York state, environmental issues were (and still are) a big concern. We felt if we could reduce the amount of pest controls we used, it could be a benefit,” says Ottley. His company began practising IPM on one of their routes with one modified truck and within two years, the entire company was utilizing IPM principles in their day-to-day operations.

     The first phase in One Step’s IPM program is to determine what is necessary to grow healthy turf on a new client’s property. “We start each customer off with a full soil analysis and adjust their fertilizer program to meet the needs of their site,” explains Ottley. “This way, we get things on track to maintain a healthy lawn and then start the IPM approach.” The customer’s healthy lawn is a key to One Step’s lawn care program. “We want the turf to have a natural resistance to pest problems. Next, we need to know the level of damage the plants on site can sustain without loss of long-term health. Finally, once we have identified a pest, we choose the proper control product targeted for the specific pest and treat only the infected area.”

     The textbook definition of IPM follows an extremely time-consuming process and would require lawn care technicians to pay weekly visits to a customer’s property. This is totally impractical in the competitive lawn care industry. To make the process more practical, One Step’s technicians scout for problems on their regular visits. “Our lawn care technicians visit the customer’s home every six weeks — usually five times during the growing season. At most visits they typically conduct a lawn fertilization anyway, so the customer is not paying them to simply scout for problems. Switching to a more expensive IPM service wasn’t a huge issue with most of our customers. We were surprised at how well our customer base adapted to the increase in cost and level of service.” Ottley adds that “we do have customers who still pay for the traditional pest control products and not the IPM service.” However, the number of traditional clients decreased every year.

     In an interesting aside, Mr. Ottley notes his customers view tree and shrub care in a completely different light. “It is extremely easy to scout for potential problems on a clients’ trees and shrubs and leave a bill,” he says, “but not on turf.”

     On a commercial level, traditional scouting and IPM practices are widely accepted. “Our commercial clients are willing to pay for traditional scouting and have adopted the IPM philosophy,” says Ottley. “It can be very effective, as we have seen at a 200-acre cemetery in our care. Before we took over they were treating the entire property for grubs. Regular scouting by our technicians determined where the damaging populations of grubs were and we have treated only these areas. By using IPM, we controlled the grub problem and actually saved the cemetery money. They are very pleased.”

     Education is an integral part of a successful IPM program — both of the workforce and the customer. One Step offers in-house training for their technicians. “We train our people on where to look for problems,” he explains. “For example, we know we will not have crabgrass or chinch bug problems in a shady area, and so would never treat these spots for those pests. Years of experience show that the problem areas of most properties are the edges of driveways and sidewalks – so these places are usually the focus of any pest control we do.”

     During the off-season, One Step’s staff takes advantage of co-operative extension courses offered by the county extension service, and some staff members have been sent to Short Courses offered at nearby Cornell University.

     Staff training is ongoing, with meetings at the beginning of every workweek throughout the growing season. “We focus on much more than IPM at our weekly staff meetings,” Ottley says, “but we make sure we cover a timely aspect of identification or monitoring at each get-together.”

     Educating One Step’s customers is another matter entirely. “Customers don’t fully understand IPM,” Ottley admits, “even though we constantly provide information about our program through our newsletters, our web site and leave-behinds. We are also always preaching the how-to’s and benefits of correct mowing and watering practices to maintain a healthy lawn. Customer education is an ongoing and constant issue.”

     Customers see this communication as part of One Step’s commitment to service, and this helps to differentiate them from their competition.

     Instituting IPM is a costly process as it requires front-line workers who are highly trained in plant and pest identification, as well as able to recognize and assess levels of damage to plants and prescribe and administer treatment, if required. Training a technician to this extent is time consuming and, above all, costly.

     Ottley realized that, once he had invested in an employee to this extent, he had to do everything possible to ensure good employee retention. His answer was to eliminate the seasonal aspect of the job, and ensure his key staff members are employed year round. One Step currently has 30 full-time permanent staff members and six full-time seasonal employees. To keep their employees busy through the winter, One Step expanded their services. Ottley purchased a Christmas Décor (holiday decorating) franchise and, in the past, staff members have sold Christmas trees throughout December.

     In the New Year, One Step’s technicians begin contacting customers to sign them up for the coming season. The company does not operate with continuing service agreements for its customers, so it is necessary for staff to make contact with each customer and explain the coming year’s services each and every year. While this process is costly, Ottley says his high level of customer retention makes this labour intensive process well worth the effort. “Our clients view this pre-season contact as a measure of our customer service, and appreciate the time our technicians take to answer their questions and reeducate them on proper turfgrass care,” he explains.

     As with the practical application of any process, nothing is completely black and white. While the premise of IPM is to apply pest control products only when warranted by damaging levels of pest populations, new, safer horticultural chemicals are being developed that don’t necessarily fit into the IPM philosophy.

     The relatively new grub control product, Merit, is an example of such a chemical. Previously, One Step’s technicians monitored for grub control based on knowing where to look for the highest concentrations of the subterranean pests. However, Merit is applied before the grubs actually hatch, and so cannot be used in conjunction with a traditional IPM monitoring program. “We have thought long and hard about this and have decided to switch to Merit for grub control this year,” Ottley explains. “It is a tremendously safer product for our customers, the environment and our applicators. We feel this outweighs the advantages of using a stronger product to control grubs later in the season. We will target only those areas of the county we know are prone to grub infestations and we won’t apply Merit in wet or shady areas (where grubs won’t feed).”

     As a past president of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA), Ottley is well versed in the environmentalists’ lobby efforts and resulting changes to state and federal legislation. An important issue coming up in his home state is a 48-hour notification law, which would require lawn care companies to notify all properties abutting a customer’s home of a upcoming pesticide treatment 48 hours in advance. “As we see it, this is an anti-IPM law,” he explains. “There is a limit on what people will spend on their lawns, and if we have to notify four, six or eight people two days in advance every time we spray, lawn care companies will begin applying as many products as they can in each spray to make it cost-effective for their client. The environmentalists who have asked for this law are actually creating a road block for the IPM process and have created an anti-environmental law. If this goes through, we will see an increase in the amount of product used.”