Back in 2008 I still owned my own company and part of my portfolio of work was performing bulk applications of fertilizer to golf courses, sports fields, and similar large properties. A fertilizer salesperson would complete a sale and ask if the customer planned on spreading it themselves or if they wanted me to do it.
One particularly painful memory was that period during the summer when petroleum prices spiked. There is practically nothing in our industry that is not touched by petroleum from the urea in our fertilizer (manufactured by reacting natural gas and nitrogen in the atmosphere) to the bags the fertilizer is shipped in (also a byproduct of petroleum processing) to the gasoline and diesel fuel used to transport it. I couldn’t help but notice how huge the diesel fuel tanks on my truck became when fuel reached over $4.00 per gallon.
Funny thing was that the fertilizer customers suddenly remembered how to spread their own fertilizer when both the product and the custom application services became more expensive. I knew then that it was time to abandon the custom application business. Not long after that, I sold my company and started a new adventure, something that I really needed to do for my own well-being. Change can be good and, in this case, some economic adversity was the lemons I needed to make lemonade.
I have been told numerous times that the lawn care industry is ‘recession-proof.’ Although the economist in me is reluctant to make such a sweeping statement, I suppose that there is a measure of truth to be found. A case in point was the strong demand for lawn and landscape services last year amid the pandemic lockdowns. Even through the uncertainty swirling around us at the time, people decided to invest in their homes and many of our member companies saw significant growth in sales; hopefully, those sales drove profits as well.
But as we look forward to 2022, what concerns me most is scarcity – will we be able to procure the goods we need to provide the services we are contracted to perform? While considerations of scarcity are part of determining the price of something, we see the very real possibility that some things may not be available at any price. I know that I am not alone in this line of thinking. In speaking with lawn care operators in the past couple of weeks, some are laying in large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides for next year.
So, what can you do agronomically to buttress yourself against the prevailing winds of the marketplace? First, if you have not done so already, adopt a set of turfgrass best management practices. There are many such documents available at cooperative extension websites across the country that are specific to your climate (feel free to reach out to me if you can’t find one).
Next, ask yourself if you base your program on soil testing. A trend in the golf industry in the past few years has been to reduce nutrient inputs to the lowest level possible without reduction in turf health and playability. Soil testing is central to achieving this reduction and something that you can incorporate into your program in the coming year.
If a soil test shows sufficient levels of phosphorus and potassium, there is no need to apply it in further quantities in the form of fertilizer. Conversely, if a nutrient is deficient or soil pH is out of whack, there exists for you the opportunity to upsell additional applications of these nutrients. Less fertilizer applied goes straight to your bottom line, right along with additional sales of needed nutrients.
Within the scope of BMPs is calibration. And I am not just talking about the perfunctory once-per-year walk around the parking lot in the spring, I am talking about focusing in on each and every application that is performed. When a lawn specialist pulls up in front of a customer’s house, they should know how much product should be applied before they even get out of the truck. Adopting standard operating procedures that speak to what I call constant calibration are very helpful.
For instance, only load enough material on a production truck to cover the lawns on the next day’s schedule (you can add a percentage for error, of course). Before beginning each lawn, only load enough product into the hopper to cover that lawn only. Keep a running tab on how much product is being used during the day. This doesn’t have to be complicated; it can be chicken scratch on the margin of the route cover sheet. The potential for savings on wasted product is huge.
This article was published in the January/February issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.