Fertile Market for Organic Lawn-Care Products

AMERICA'S lawns are coming up green in more ways than one. Many homeowners and golf-course keepers are shunning chemical pesticides and fertilizers and spreading instead natural, organic products. From poultry-feather fertilizers to sex-pheromone bug-traps, these products promise verdant lawns without using chemicals that may taint groundwater, harm wildlife, and make the lawn dependent on synthetic solutions.

Lawns are big business in America: 53 million homeowners fill the do-it-yourself market; 9 million hire a professional service, according to the Professional Lawn Care Association.

Last year homeowners spent $1.5 billion on fertilizers, and $1.2 billion on pesticides, says Bruce Butterfield of the National Gardening Association in Burlington, Vt.

The National Academy of Sciences found that homeowners use four to eight times more chemical pesticides per acre than farmers use.

Organics are eating into this market: In just five years, sales of organic lawn-care products have grown from about 2 or 3 percent to 14 percent of all lawn product sales; that should double by the summer of 1992, and rise to 39 percent by 1996, according to retailers' projections reported to Edgell Communications in Cleveland.

"Everybody wants a piece of the organic market right now," says Mike McGrath, editor in chief of Organic Gardening, based in Emmaus, Pa. "Five years ago you probably couldn't find two or three [companies], but now there are probably 25 to 50 out there."

Meantime, business is slow for the chemically based companies, including the Scotts Company, LESCO Inc., and ChemLawn Services Corporation. They, too, are adding "organics" to their lines.

In Canada, sales of traditional pesticides have dropped 25 percent over the past three years, says the Crop Protection Institute.

Organic fertilizers have lower N-P-K (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) values than chemically based ones, and can cost as much as 40 percent more. But a chemical fix doesn't last, say organic growers; it may work more quickly than less-concentrated organics, but the soil dries up and cannot hold nutrients, which means they run off more easily into surrounding areas.

Proponents say natural organics enrich the soil with living organisms, helping it resist pests, hold nutrients, and better withstand temperature extremes. The first rule in organic growing, says editor McGrath: "Pick the right thing to grow." Native grasses, he says, are pest- and stress-resistant if your soil is healthy.

Sustane Products, a three-year-old company based in Minneapolis, grew at a 240 percent pace last year selling a turkey-manure and pine-chip fertilizer. Country clubs, professional football fields, sod farms, organic food farms, and theme parks use Sustane, says Tom Hunter, the company's marketing vice president.

Ringer Corporation, a 30-year-old Minneapolis company, has grown more than 50 percent per year in the last five years - from $2 million in sales in 1985 to $14 million in 1990. Last year Ringer acquired two other plant-care companies, Safer Inc. (which makes insecticidal soaps) and Reuter (which makes natural pesticides).

But, says Ringer, growth in organic lawn-care sales might be cut short. There are no federal guidelines spelling out what "organic" or "natural" must mean. Laws prohibit manufacturers from using words like "safe" or "natural" on pesticide labels. Ringer says it is unfair that customers cannot get this information, when it is clear that so many want it.

The lack of clear boundaries for labeling rankles both "natural" and "synthetic" lawncare makers.

Most recently, Ringer irked Scotts and ChemLawn with its television ad that claims its Lawn Restore fertilizer is "safe," but that those made with chemicals seep into groundwater, poison fish, and ultimately end up on our dinner plates. "Ringer's ads are not truthful," says Mike Kelty of Scotts, based in Marysville, Ohio. "They try to make an artificial distinction between natural chemicals and synthetic chemicals."

Rob Ringer disagrees. "Our fertilizers do not come from chemicals." Mr. Ringer lists the fertilizer ingredients: feather meal, soybean meal, bone meal, wheat bran, and sunflower hull ash. "Here's my challenge: I will sit down and eat some of my product, and they can eat some of theirs."

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