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Industry Outlook

With 2020 now officially behind us, many landscape professionals are excited about what this new year will hold. That being said, most are well-aware that some of the hot-button issues of 2020 have followed us into 2021. As much as everyone would like to start this year with a clean slate, issues like H-2B, pesticide regulations, and even the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be ignored. Even so, many feel stronger and better prepared as we kick off this new year. Having been through what may have been one of their most challenging — or at least unusual — years in business, landscape business owners say they are ready to tackle 2021. We spoke to a number of NALP members to find out specifically which issues they see carrying into 2021 and how they’re prepared to address them.

COVID-19

Landscape America conducted their stretch and flex outdoor sessions each morning while still socially distancing, until their governor enforced new guidelines reducing outdoor gatherings to 25 people.
Photo: Landscape America

Like us, we’re sure you’re likely tired of talking about the pandemic. But there’s no denying it has been an unprecedented, historical event that impacted many businesses. Fortunately for our industry, with landscape businesses being deemed essential early on, many were able to keep working through the worst of it. Even so, cutbacks in commercial spending meant those servicing certain markets — particularly hospitality and retail — took a hit.

Bob Grover, LIC, president of Pacific Landscape Management in Portland, Oregon, says that the impact of COVID-19 remains an unknown for this year.

“There is great hope that a vaccine will put COVID-19 behind us, but I believe it will take time, and the economic impact to-date will have a long-lasting impact on the general business climate in the United States and the world,” he admits.

But through difficult times come invaluable lessons and many say they’ve come out stronger on the other side. Doug McDuff, president and co-owner of Landscape America in Wrentham, Massachusetts, is among them.

“The pandemic — and our strict adherence to guidelines such as wearing masks and social distancing — has created difficulties in communication lines between management and crew members, but I am proud of the way our team reacted and continued to build on our strong culture,” he says. “We have used videos and newsletters to communicate our open-book management updates and provide other messaging. We were also able to conduct our stretch and flex outdoor sessions each morning while still socially distancing, until our governor enforced new guidelines reducing outdoor gatherings to 25 people. We also utilized our employee Facebook group to engage with the entire team.”

McDuff says that the need to alter typical communication practices has led managers to checking in even more often with the team and ensuring everyone is staying engaged.

“I feel our organization is actually stronger both in culture and in talent than we were in February, before the pandemic,” he says.

Jennifer Lemcke, LIC, chief executive officer of Weed Man Lawn Care, headquartered in Oshawa, Ontario, says that the pandemic has presented an opportunity for businesses to incorporate technology that perhaps they’d dragged their feet on in the past. She says that going forward, this could create lasting change.

“We launched ‘buy online’ opportunities last year and some customers liked the no-human-interaction approach to buying lawn care,” she says. “So, looking to the future businesses might think about how that could change their business model.”

The same is true of hiring, Lemcke says. Will interviews need to take place on Zoom? What will onboarding look like if we continue to be faced with the challenges of the pandemic in 2021? The good news, Lemcke says, is that business owners are better prepared than they were in 2020.

“For many of us, the pandemic has been the push to fully integrate technology the way we’ve talked about for a long time,” she adds. “That’s one positive to have come from all of this.”

The H-2B Program

In addition to dealing with the pandemic, many landscape business owners also had to face the difficult reality that their H-2B workers were not coming through this past year. For Shayne Newman, LIC, founder and president of YardScapes Landscape Professionals, in New Milford, Connecticut, this was a challenge. He says many of the workers had been coming to work for YardScapes Landscape Professionals for more than 10 years — and losing them was difficult for everyone.

“I’m so supportive of this program and will continue to fight for it,” Newman says. “These are people who choose to come here and want to work — and they’re messaging me and asking if they’ll be able to come next year. It’s so difficult when it is fully out of our control.”

Newman only sees continued challenges for the program ahead as he admits it is difficult to argue it’s a necessity when so many Americans are unemployed right now.

“It does seem crazy that with our unemployment rate we still struggle with labor so much, but the fact is that intensive labor is not something most people are interested in,” Newman says. “As a result, we continue to look at ways that we might be able to attract new people. Right now, we’re looking closely at the hospitality and restaurant industries, which are suffering from the pandemic. How do we entice those people that this is an industry for them? For people to really thrive in our industry, they do need to love to be outside and that’s not for everyone. But for the right person, it can be a great opportunity.”

On the other end of the country, Grover is equally as worried about H-2B.

“It’s going to be another tough year for it as it has been lost in the immigration controversy in Washington,” he says. “I believe there will be H-2B visas this year, but significantly less than we need. Some in Congress believe there shouldn’t be an H-2B program during the pandemic because of the high unemployment. However, our experience was that it was harder to hire seasonal workers this past year than in previous years even with the higher unemployment. Those who are unemployed are not seeking work in the landscape industry.”

Joseph Barnes, marketing director for Yellowstone Landscape, headquartered in Bunnell, Florida, but with locations across the country, says that H-2B impacts many of the company’s branches.

“At Yellowstone, we’ve been passionate advocates for reform in the H-2B program for the better part of the last decade,” Barnes says. “It’s been extremely frustrating to watch the program be turned into a political football over the past five years, as it’s been pulled into the larger debate about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Personally, I’ve met with dozens of Congressmen and Congresswomen who understand the great need for a dependable and well-vetted guest worker program, but refuse to publicly support reforming the H-2B program, for fear of what some of their constituents may say about them. As we look ahead to a new Congress in 2021, we look forward to the opportunity to educate newly appointed members on the deep need for reform in the H-2B program, while cautiously optimistic that we’ll be able to bring meaningful legislation to the floor that makes the program a more reliable source to meet our industry’s seasonal labor challenges.”

Eco-Friendly Practices

As we move forward in 2021, many landscape business owners see eco-friendly practices as a hot-topic industry issue. Claire Goldman, principal and head of design and business development for R&R Landscaping in Auburn, Alabama, says that being a good steward of the environment is a responsibility of landscape professionals and it’s important to continue to look at ways that can be achieved.

“We are actively making changes where we can,” she says. “We have an overarching theme of sustainability for 2021 that includes initiatives for tree plantings, pollinator gardens, water usage, and being more proactive about reducing our waste. Environmental changes often feel so overwhelming it’s easy to feel like you aren’t really making a difference with small, incremental steps. However, when you compound each of those small steps together, you make a big change.”

Eco-friendly practices have been on the radar for Terra Phelps, “the handler” at Utopian Landscapes, LLC, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for a long time.

“This is essential to so many facets of our industry,” she says. “It will help us grow by gaining deeper roots and branching out. All of the other industries are already on it — lightbulbs, paper products, flooring, cosmetics, and the list goes on.”

Eco-friendly landscaping is important to today’s major market of consumers, Phelps adds. After all, she says this is the generation “raised on recycling and organic food.” As a result, their values need to start flourishing in our industry as it has in others.

Weed Man’s Lemcke says that the company has always been focused on integrated pest management (IPM). Now, they are in the midst of testing robotic mowers.

“We are currently testing in three markets — Atlanta, Madison, and Columbus — and we’re keeping a close watch on the future of lawn cutting,” she says.

Robotics have also been of interest to Yellowstone Landscape.

“We have been watching closely as several firms have jumped into the race to develop a commercial-grade, autonomous mowing solution,” Barnes says. “We’re currently in varied levels of testing and discussions with many of these firms and see great promise in the work that some of them are doing. For now, we’re still keeping our expectations closely grounded, but can see the possibility of some of this technology moving out of testing and into regular production within the next 12 to 24 months, for certain segments of client properties we serve. Our hope is that as more of the technology transitions off the testing fields and into real-world use, it will only improve more quickly and become more robust and feature rich.”

Of course, the interest in eco-friendly practices can vary from market to market. Grover says that in the West, which is already known to be more environmentally aware, this movement only continues to increase.

“Some in the landscape industry are afraid of this movement but I believe the industry needs to be a part of the solution as opposed to afraid of change,” he says. “I am a strong advocate of water conservation, reduced pesticide and fertilizer use, reduced emissions, and many other environmental initiatives. However, I do not believe that we need increased regulation and I challenge our industry to make the improvements from the inside as opposed to ignore the change and allow regulation to negatively impact us. We can fix ourselves from the inside to achieve the objective of lowering the impact to the environment.”

Pesticide Regulations

Pesticide regulations were amongst our industry’s hottest topics in the past few years. But labor shortages and the pandemic have made it a less talked about issue. However, it certainly has not gone away.

“It seems as though some of the emphasis on pesticide regulations have taken a backseat during the COVID-19 pandemic and election this year,” McDuff says. “I anticipate this will pick up after Q2 of 2021, once the vaccine has been distributed and local governments refocus.”

McDuff says that in addition to pesticide regulation, on the legislative front, he also sees salt usage and snow contract indemnification clauses to be an issue. There is currently a pending bill in Massachusetts.

Weed Man’s Lemcke says that this is an issue where more lawn and landscape industry voices need to be heard.

“I think we need to do a better job of being proactive in our segment of the industry,” she says. “We are currently working and having a lot of conversations with TruGreen, Spring-Green, Lawn Doctor, and some other large lawn care organizations. I do think being part of the franchise system we can help with the narrative and identify the people who are being good stewards, which is not just good for our brand but for our industry.”

Supplier Outlook

From the supplier side, manufacturers are cautiously optimistic for what this year will hold. Per Kvarby, global director, product management – wheeled category – at Husqvarna Group, says that from a market perspective, the fact that the landscaping industry held strong through the worst of the pandemic gives them optimism for 2021.

“We fully expect business to continue forward as it did in 2020,” he says. “Of course, the measures that the new government implement — what they rule federally — will have an impact on the supplier side. Safety is the main concern — at Husqvarna, the safety of everyone is of extreme importance. With that in mind, reduced production capabilities are something that definitely worries us. There’s always the concern about being able to supply enough product while also meeting the social distancing requirements at production facilities. This goes for equipment manufactured in the United States but for imports, as well. There are restrictions globally, too.”

Kvarby calls these “uncharted grounds” and says that we must all proceed with caution.

“I think the fact that landscaping is considered essential work is a huge positive that we have going for us,” he says. “But the fact that the work is there does not mean there are no complications. Up until this point, labor has been the industry’s biggest challenge. Now it’s possible that equipment could pose new challenges, as well. I think it’s important that landscape business owners pay close attention to what’s going on and make decisions accordingly.”

“There is no denying 2020 was an extraordinary year and we all have to be prepared for more uncertainty in the year to come,” says Bjoern Fischer, president of STIHL. “However, while there are many things we don’t know, at STIHL we do know that we will continue to stay the course and remain focused on quality production, logistics and service to ensure that we support STIHL Dealers, and their customers, to the best of our ability.”

STIHL says they plan to strengthen their supply chain and expand and modernize several of their branch operations.

“We are delivering new technologies to the market — launching a new line of high-tech professional STIHL battery products, in addition to expanding our gas and battery product range for both professionals and homeowners,” Fischer says. “Our goal is to ensure that essential services, like arborists, landscapers and first responders will be able to continue their critical work in our communities and keep this country running.”

Diversity and Inclusion

Utopian’s Phelps says that diversity and inclusion were hot-topic issues in 2020 and remains something their company is committed to keeping on their radar.

“Changes will start to happen as we become accountable for the values that we set in motion in 2020,” she says.

Phelps says there is also a need for more industry acceptance and support for the LGBTQ community as well. 

2021: We Got This

Although there are industry concerns that we wish wouldn’t have followed us into 2021, overall, the consensus is that landscape business owners have a better grasp on what it will take to have a good year.

McDuff says that his best advice for 2021 would be to communicate consistently (even if not in-person), budget conservatively, and hire from other industries that have laid off as a result of the pandemic.

“Also, stay engaged with state and national associations for updates, legislative help and opportunities to network remotely,” he says. “Stay close to your customers, survey them, ask for feedback, and be a resource for those who are feeling the pains from the pandemic and economy.”

Goldman says that R&R Landscaping remains cautiously optimistic.

“Our focus for this year will be to chip away at the indirect hours and continue to streamline inefficiencies,” she says. “Our intention is to be laser-focused on our ideal client and ideal team members, celebrate the wins when they come, and learn from the losses.”

YardScapes’ Newman says that there’s no denying 2021 will come with its own struggles — or perhaps continuations of struggles that started last year. But he, too, is positive in his outlook.

“I feel optimistic about our industry,” he says. “So many of our clients have gained an even greater appreciation for outdoor spaces — and the work that we do — and we’ve been just as busy with sales. I’m appreciative and grateful for that, and I think it will continue. People are spending more time outdoors than ever. As far as what the year holds, I like to think that we’ve been through the worst but at the very least, we’ve learned a lot and we’re ready to tackle 2021. We have to keep moving forward and learn as we go.”

This article was published in the Jan/Feb issue of the magazine.

Lindsey Getz

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