Virginia Turfgrass Journal – The Turf Zone Show Host and Tom Tracy
Turf Zone: Welcome to episode four of Virginia Turfgrass. Joining us today is Tom Tracy, Executive Director of the Virginia Turfgrass Council. Tom, today, will address the Council’s outreach efforts on behalf of turfgrass managers in Virginia and the public relations implications for the industry in the wake of recent policy and regulatory news.
Let’s just jump right in and start with Phase III of the Watershed Implementation Plan. What should VTC members know about this?
Tom Tracy: Ironically, just in today’s mail I received the Bay Journal, which is an environmental publication. The highlighted article in that journal from the Chesapeake Bay, I forget the exact name of the group, it talks about localities being threatened with stormwater regulations by the EPA. This issue about WIP III and stormwater regulation and other regulations are so all-encompassing that it’s affecting not just our industry, but cities like Fairfax, Alexandria, Virginia Beach, Norfolk. It’s a huge issue. Looking at the industry by way of history, I guess about 2010, the EPA said we have got to clean out the Chesapeake Bay and they looked at the six or eight states plus the District of Columbia that affect the Chesapeake Bay. They said by 2025 the Bay will be clean. And there was an “or else” there. The “or else” was fines, they would withhold money, it was a very serious “or else.” They said that the Bay has to be clean in a series of steps. The steps are called Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP I, WIP II, WIP III). The first two WIPs were okay, they did not affect us too much. The third WIP, the draft of which is out now, the final form will be submitted to the EPA probably in June. The WIP III, I’m talking about Virginia’s right now. Each state has one, but right now I’m just referring to Virginia’s. This WIP III, it has several provisions that actually we work closely with the state of Virginia to make sure the provisions that were included in their proposal to the EPA, would not be onerous to our industry. Actually, we’re pretty pleased. One of the provisions is that the localities, will NOT have the authority to devise new regulations for fertilizer. Fertilizer is a big issue with WIP, nitrogen and phosphorus. They did say localities will be able to enforce existing state code. Again, that’s key – exisiting state code, they don’t make new code. The last meeting of the general assembly, several localities did attempt to revise the state code so they could regulate fertilizer. Another thing in the WIP III draft is that VDACS, the department that’s in charge of the Certified Fertilizer Applicator Program, would be able to hire somebody to actually monitor that program. It’s a fantastic program, the problem is that it’s not being enforced. It’s not being enforced because VDACS does not have the manpower or the resources to enforce it. So the companies, if they’re doing things properly, such as keeping fertilizer off of sidewalks, making sure they put down the right amount of fertilizer and not too much, not putting out phosphorus unless they need it – they’re being penalized in the public eye by persons, by companies who do it improperly. And we, as the industry, are saying, let’s get some enforcement so those persons who are not doing it properly will be accountable. I can give you example after example of fertilizer that’s been left on sidewalks by companies. And these are companies that, I have not checked, but I would be wagering that they are not certified by the State of Virginia to legally apply fertilizer. And sadly, some of the these problems have occurred right in front of some of the members of the General Assembly’s homes. Not a good thing.
Turf Zone: Enforcement is something that you’re addressing specifically. We have better public relations as turfgrass managers if the regulations that exist are enforced, correct?
Tom Tracy: That is correct. Basically, by enforcing, it rewards companies that are doing the right thing.
Turf Zone: When we’re talking about codes and regulations, those are coming from the government and government relations are obviously very important for the turfgrass industry. What does that involve for VTC members?
Tom Tracy: Again, the timing of this podcast is fantastic. Because just yesterday the Board of Directors of the VTC decided that we are going to strengthen our legislative committee. And you say, “Does that mean you’re going to do more lobbying?” Actually, if we do it right, we will do less lobbying. We’re going to do a whole lot more of education. We want to visit the key decision-makers, I mean the members of the General Assembly, I mean the regulatory agency persons – in their home districts for the members of the General Assembly. And just talk to them about the value of the turf and landscape industries. When we go and visit them in Virginia Beach and Roanoke and Henrico and Fairfax, what happens is fantastic. Because we take one of our local constituents with us, so it’s not just me or somebody from another part of the state going, it’s one of their constituents going to their office. And when we do this, we’re taking bags of grass seed. Pennington has graciously provided us with those bags of grass seed. For the past several years, we have gone to Richmond, to the General Assembly building and we have actually passed out seeds to the members of the General Assembly and their staff. Those bags, I can’t tell you how well they were received. And people kept telling me – “Well, you’re here, thank you very much. And please can I have another bag? But what are you pushing for, what bill?” And when we were doing the grass seed distribution, there were actually no bills that we had to push for or against. So it was actually very very nice. We could say “Hey, we’re just saying the industry is good, here’s some seed, enjoy your lawn.” So it really helped develop relationships. In Virginia, nearly every seat of the General Assembly is coming up for re-election this coming November, and several members, several of our established friends, both Republican and Democrat, have said that they’re not going to run again, they’ve done their time. So I have a feeling that in January, we’re going to have a whole new set of members of the General Assembly, not all of them, there will be some who have been members for several years. So it’s almost like we have to start all over again, educating key decision members about the value of our industry. That’s just one thing we’re looking to do.
Turf Zone: So it’s really education—what I’m hearing you say the most—is having those in positions to make decisions, create bills or legislation, understand exactly what the turf industry is doing and how we do it, and how we can be responsible with the existing codes and regulations.
Tom Tracy: You nailed it, that’s so true. I go back to 10 years ago, 12 years ago, even five years ago. When we would start distributing the grass seed, people would say, “Oh, what are you up to? What do you want?” And now we are very well received. Another example of education – at VMI, Virginia Military Institute, every year, there’s a conference called Environment Virginia. This conference is huge for the environmental community. About 12 years ago I was asked to speak there and I was not aware of that conference until I was asked to speak. Then I saw all around me key decision-makers. These are regulatory leaders in the State of Virginia, including the non-profits such as the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay — I could keep on going – who influence those decision-makers. We decided at that point to have booth. So for the past 12 years, we’ve had a booth at Environment Virginia. The first three or four years, it was very interesting. We kept getting, “Why are you here? What are you after?” These are coming from all sorts of people. Now, when I’m not there or when I’m late, people say “Where were you?” or “Is everything okay?” They actually look forward to seeing us. That change is because of education and because our industry is doing the right thing consistently – properly maintained turf, properly maintained landscapes – they’re good for the environment.
Going back to the WIP, WIP III. One thing it says is that in Virginia, right now, nitrogen and phosphorus reductions in the Chesapeake Bay are doing okay. We have to improve it, but they’re doing okay, particularly from our industry. We look at the amount of sediment, which is another issue, is not doing okay, and that’s state-wide. What I look at when you have properly maintained turfgrass next to the water, you will not have sediment. So, it’s actually very good for our industry.
Turf Zone: So you mentioned a couple of environmental groups that you’ve worked with and have established relationships with. I know that’s a big focus for you– one, as a public relations element, but why is this so important and what are the benefits of it?
Tom Tracy: I look at the environmental groups – you start listing the river keeper groups – the James River, Potomac River – seems like every river in the state has a nonprofit association attached to it. Then you’ll also look at the state-wide groups, the regional groups – the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. These groups have contacts with local leaders. I’m talking about city council members, county leaders, that we will never have. They have the ears of these persons, who with the stroke of a pen, locally, can devastate our industry. I know Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, the state basically rules what happens, but localities still have a whole lot of power. So that got my attention about the need to start working with the environmental groups that want to work with us. And it came to fruition about five years ago, when a key person, who actually met me at this conference at VMI, called me and introduced herself and said she was with the Elizabeth River Group, a riverkeeper group out of Portsmouth, Norfolk and also Virginia Beach and parts of Chesapeake. It’s a very powerful group. First I said “Why? Why do you want to work with us?” and we had lunch. Myself and one of the key persons with Old Dominion University who is in charge of the grounds, and we had lunch with her. And she said point blank that “You guys, you can help us make sure turf lawns are properly maintained. We understand residents who have homes along the Elizabeth River want to have grass. And improperly maintained grass makes sure sediment goes into the river, which we are trying to prevent. We want you to help us get people doing the right thing.” I’m not that sentimental, but almost tears came to my eyes. I said “Do you know how long I’ve waited to hear something like that?” Our relationship has blossomed. Then from that, we’ve gotten to know the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay, Businesses for the Bay, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. There are some riverkeeper groups that keep us at arm’s length. There’s one group particularly that said “I would love to come and speak to your group to tell them why grass is bad.” Well, that person is not coming to speak to our group. But we look at, time and time again, we’re hearing from the CBF, the Alliance for the Bay, Businesses for the Bay and these other groups that properly maintained turf, properly maintained landscapes is the key. And that to me is a milestone. As a quick example, I live in Virginia Beach. Virginian Pilot, which is our local paper, they used to regularly run articles that would trash our industry. They would say “We all know,” they’d say it as a fact, “that most of the nitrogen, most of the phosphorus that goes into our local rivers is because of grass, people fertilizing, companies overfertilizing their lawns.” The articles frequently quote a riverkeeper group or the CBF or the Alliance. Well, over the past four or five years, whenever an article appeared in that newspaper that could haveportrayed out industry in a bad way, there was silence. It didn’t say anything that our industry that’s bad. I’m going, “Wow. This is good, I like this.” So there are some great benefits that we’ve had from working with environmental groups. Like I said, we have to say that some do not want to work with us because some feel like grass is bad, let’s get rid of grass. And when you have that strong of a stand, we have a long way to go before we can actually work together. But what I just told you is the exception, not the rule.
Turf Zone: In closing, what are some steps that the VTC, and not just as an organization, but also as individual members can take going forward to advocate for themselves and for the industry?
Tom Tracy: Basically, keep doing the right thing. The big issue in the public eye right now is fertilizer. When you as industry people see somebody putting down fertilizer improperly, I’m talking about even a senior employee, if they’re putting fertilizer down on a sidewalk and leaving it on a sidewalk, not sweeping it up, not getting it up, be as bold as you dare to be, that you actually feel comfortable with, but somehow you’ve got to let them know that that’s not right, it’s not legal. According to the law, you’re not supposed to do that. So, be diligent, but mainly keep doing the right thing. I can’t tell you how important it is for us as an industry to be perceived by key decision-makers that we really are doing the right thing. They see persons who are not doing the right thing who may not be in the business very long, or who are just staying out there and for whatever reason, not doing the right thing. And those are the ones who give us a bad name.
Turf Zone: I hope that members listening will take to heart those bits of advice about how they can continue to work with you and with the VTC and all the environmental groups to find some common ground. Tom, thank you for sharing this knowledge with us.
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