Conventional vs. Organic Turf Management in our Public Spaces

Does your town or city spray pesticides on public parks, public school land, etc?  Ask your alderman how the land is managed now – are pesticides or herbicides sprayed?  Ask them if we could transition the management to the organic practices presented in this post.  Ask them if a policy could be created which bans chemicals on public property.  Beyond Pesticides has a wonderful website with resources to help you start a neighborhood or town initiative, and if you contact them with questions, they will provide you with wonderful support!

Typically, people think that it is not financially feasible for municipalities to adopt an organic weed control management system.  The cost of a conventional product (RoundUp) is often compared to the cost of an ‘organic’ alternative — the alternative product always costs at least twice the amount of conventional chemicals such as RoundUp; however, an organic or natural management SYSTEM is on par with and in the long run LESS EXPENSIVE than a conventional, chemical-based management system.  

The organic land management approach is NOT a one-for-one swap out between conventional and organic products.  

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It is an innovative approach to land management that focuses on working with natural systems. Conventional systems, through their use of harsh chemical pesticides and fertilizers, degrade soil health, which in turn weakens plant defenses.  It’s like feeding yourself junk food – it will fill you up, but it’s likely to result in poor health. Because of the propensity for chemical land management to treat soil like an inert medium to grow grass, nice looking turf becomes reliant on these chemicals – a process some call the ‘pesticide treadmill.’  Poor soil health leads to pest and weed intrusion which requires more pesticide use and further degrades soil health in an endless cycle.

If we stop killing the biota in the soil with chemicals (poison), and we increase the amounts of plants, which act like solar panels — turning the sun’s energy into sugars, which increases the amount of carbon in the soil — the amount of water the soil can RETAIN dramatically increases.  Research shows that if the carbon in the soil is increased by merely, 1%, the soil can RETAIN or STORE 37,000 MORE gallons of water per ~ 2.5 acres than it could before!  This feeds all of the involved cycles positively — it increases biological activity, which in turn increases the amount of carbon in the soil, which increases plant health and growth, which in turn feeds biological activity – it is a beautiful cycle.

Although costs are considered in this post as the main concern, we can also consider external costs associated with pesticide use, including exposure to carcinogens, contamination of groundwater, and the poisoning of wildlife — the chemicals work their way through the water or food chain and into us.  These are costs that residents already pay for. Some of these costs are borne by individuals, such as through hospital visits for pesticide induced diseases[2], and other costs are borne by the community at large, such as through degraded water quality, or the need for species conservation and habitat restoration.  Would we continue to ignore a technological innovation — organic land management — that will decrease these issues, and cost less, long-term?

Here is a sampling of towns and institutions who have successfully adopted organic land management systems:

  • A Cost Comparison of Convention Turf Management and Natural Turf Management for School Athletic Fields[3].  In a 5-year period, this report concludes that a natural turf management system results in savings greater than 25% compared to conventional management.  I was astounded to discover that the total operating costs of the organic system equal that of the conventional at year 2.5 years, and that the organic system actually costs less by year 3!  The report takes all of the turf management system components into account, including labor costs, re-seeding, and irrigation.
  • Research from Harvard University determined that, ultimately, total operating costs of its organic maintenance system[4] is expected to be the same as the conventional based system.  The New York Times reported[5] that Harvard’s organic landscaping management reduced irrigation needs by 30%, saving 2 million gallons of water per year.  As the soil biology improves through organic management, the soil is able to retain larger amounts of water.
  • The Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in the state of Connecticut[6], which itself has a successful ban on pesticide use in school playing fields up to 8th grade[7], notes in its information on organic lawn care that “If your lawn is currently chemically dependent, initially it may be more expensive to restore it.  But in the long term, an organic lawn will actually cost you less money.  Once established, an organic lawn uses less water and fertilizers, and requires less labor for mowing and maintenance.
  • The Reno, NV Parks Department stated “There will be no cost implications as staff will implement changes within its adopted budget.”[8] – this is regarding the organic landscaping system to be adopted.
  • Douglas County, WI has had a ban on toxic pesticide use in public spaces since the mid-1990s.  You may want to reach out to that county to see how we might implement a similar ban in our county.  I also enclosed the Douglas County pesticide policy.[9]

 

Most costs in organic systems are incurred during the transition period, as seen in the Cost Comparison report from New York referenced above.  Essentially this is the period when the soil is being weaned off pesticides.  The organic approach aims to work with natural systems and improve soil health by adding natural organic matter.  It focuses on cultural practices rather than applying products. This means mowing high (3-4”), proper watering, aeration, dethatching when needed, over-seeding in the fall, and other best practices.  

Natural products such as compost or compost tea break down slowly, and provide an influx of beneficial microbes which build resiliency in the system. Once established, this turf crowds out weeds, and beneficial microbes will eat pests like grubs before they reach levels that cause turf damage.  Again, this isn’t some feel-good idea of the process — this is cutting-edge innovation. Once healthy soil is in place, organic systems decrease the need for product inputs.  Less pesticides are needed because the soil does the work, and in most cases, less fertilizer is needed, save for a yearly application of compost, as the microbes in the soil begin to break down and cycle through organic matter in the soil, releasing nutrients.

 

It is sad to me that we are spending more money than we need to, as we continue conventional land management.  As we do this, we are continuously dumping billions of pounds of herbicides, pesticides, insecticides and fungicides into our environment – and ‘environment’ is just a word to describe the food, water, and air we all use and need.

 

We debate about THE cause of the diseases which continue to dramatically rise, even in children, but we know there is no ONE cause, but rather many causes which result in a collective degradation of our environment.  As researchers and doctors now say: “80% of cancer is environmental.” The disease rates result from a combination of toxicities, and the unnecessary use of pesticides is only one of those toxicities. As you can see from the information referenced in this letter, our current use of pesticides and other toxic chemicals is unnecessary, and we pay more for it, directly and indirectly.

 

Members of European Parliament voted on Oct 24th, 2017, in a non-binding resolution, to ban herbicide/weed-killer glyphosate (Roundup), starting with a complete ban on household use, and a full ban, including agricultural use, in five years.  Although member states must vote, this is a meaningful event.

I would also love to see a similar ban in our city, and eventually, our entire state for public property.  I would also like to see this extend to private property, but that would require legislation passed to change Wisconsin’s status as a pre-emption state.[1]   The chemical industry convinced many states to pass a law that prevents any state or local area within that state from creating a pesticide policy for PRIVATE land, which is more strict than the federal guidelines.  This is incredibly unfortunate; however, even if your state is a preemption state, you can still pursue pesticide policy for PUBLIC property.  Find out if your state is a preemption state by contacting Beyond Pesticides (www.beyondpesticides.org), or research on your own. 

 

— To find out more about how to eliminate the use of chemicals on your lawn or how to manage your lawn organically, visit this resources page.

— Visit the Beyond Pesticides YouTube channel to learn how to organically manage your lawn or turf area.

— To find out how to eliminate chemicals used in agriculture/farming, visit this post.

 

References

[1]State Preemption Law” – https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/lawn/activist/documents/StatePreemption.pdf

[2] See “Pesticide Induced Diseases Database”.  http://www.beyondpesticides.org/resources/pesticide-induced-diseases-database/overview

[3] See “A Cost Comparison of Convention Turf Management and Natural Turf Management for School Athletic Fields”.  https://www.grassrootsinfo.org/pdf/turfcomparisonreport.pdf

[4] See Harvard Sustainability.  From this online site you can peruse their organic landscaping program – https://green.harvard.edu/topics/nature-ecosystems

[5] See “The Grass Is Greener at Harvard”. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/24/garden/24garden.html

[6]  See “Department of Energy and Environmental Protection – Organic Lawn Care” – http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2708&q=382644&_sm_au_=iVVKJHpq6RDSLDLq

[7]“Department of Energy and Environmental Protection – Transitioning To Organic Land Care (OLC) In Your Town” – http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2708&q=379676&deepNav_GID=1763

[8] See meeting transcript from City of Reno, Nevada 2015. http://renocitynv.iqm2.com/Citizens/Detail_LegiFile.aspx?MeetingID=1186&ID=5496

[9] See Pesticide Ordinance – Douglas County, WI.  https://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/Pesticide%20Ordinance%20&%20Application%20for%20Pesticide%20Ordinance%20Exemption.pdf

 

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