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Organically Treated Fields are Safer – But Are They Better?

15 May, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Further Testing and Application Education are Needed Before a Determination can be Made

We already know that convention centers, hotels and other venues that use alternative energy sources and make a commitment to eco-friendliness are seen as more desirable by users. Now, an increasing number of areas are mandating nature-based methods of field care.

The Shenendehowa Central School District in New York is one of these. The district, in cooperation with the New York State Education Department, is now using an organic, pesticide-free treatment to care for its athletic fields.

The question is the kind of effect they will have and the response they will get.

The Daily Gazette first reported on the issue, noting that the school district began the first round of the new organic field treatment program on April 12. The treatment uses organic fertilizer and compost tea to establish a strong root system on the field while feeding the soil with healthy microbes. The goal of the treatment is to help build organic matter in the soil and increase its ability to retain water, as well as to help turn the turf green without the extra top growth. The treatment also includes humates, a naturally occurring conditioner material that restores soil to healthy and fertile conditions.

The change in treatment came about as a result of pressure on the district about its use of pesticides on its athletic fields, prompting the district to pass resolutions to allow the application of certain pesticides and herbicides in "emergency situations" on school sports fields. (Emergencies are something about which the school district must alert the health department.)

According to school officials, the new treatments will save playing time, since previously, the fields were closed for 24 hours following any pesticide use. They also have a strong parent-friendly factor in an era of rising concerns about the long-term effects of weed and pest removal chemicals.

But organic doesn’t always mean better results, say some turf experts. Professor Jason Henderson, a turf management specialist in the UConn School of Agriculture, told CT Investigates that maintaining fields without pesticides is a huge challenge and requires people to change their expectations about what's considered a "nice field."

Henderson’s research includes best management practices for pesticide-free fields, and at this point, he says, the products accepted by some districts are largely untested in the long term.

"The tools on the organic side are drastically different than the tools on the synthetic side, simply because of efficacy," Henderson said. In addition, he notes, the cost difference in substantial.

Henderson claims that controlling crabgrass costs about $60 per acre with a traditional product. In contrast, the most common organic solution (corn gluten meal) costs $700 per acre. For grub control, Henderson says treating fields with the chemical Acelepryn costs about $100 per acre. The organic method using pathogenic nematodes runs at least $350 per acre. 

"You're talking two to three times the cost, and what's likely to happen is that towns with greater resources may do better than those with less resources," Henderson said.

The results also appear to be uneven. The CT Investigates article noted that at one middle school, the field receiving organic treatment was rutted and had bare patches and uneven spots, which the principal worried could pose a safety hazard to children playing there. The town invested thousands of dollars over-seeding the fields to try to combat the problem but there was still an increased risk of injury.

Other turf specialists say that problems often exist because when organic products are applied, new maintenance methods are needed – something field managers may not be aware of. Information from Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Section notes that many venue operators are unaware of this.

There’s a perception that organic means we’re not going to do anything,” said Brad Park, a sports turf research and education coordinator at the Rutgers Center for Turfgrass Science.

In reality, there are many cultural practices that need to be followed from fertilizing to mowing for an organic program to be successful, Park and others said. Grass shouldn’t be cut too short, soil needs to be tested so correct fertilization methods can be used and fields need regular aerification to relieve soil compaction.

Whether organic compounds work efficiently or not, there’s no doubt that the debate over their use will continue. Already, organic fertilizers have become a marketing tools for sports complexes. The web page for the College of Saint Rose Plumeri Sports Complex (Albany, New York) notes a bullet-pointed section of eco-friendly features including energy-efficient lighting, low-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint, the presence of recycling containers throughout the venue – and the use of  “organic fertilization and an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, an effective and environmentally sensitive approach used to manage pest damage by the most economical means and with the least possible hazard to people, property and the environment.”

SDM will continue to follow this developing issue. However, in light of the recent $2 billion judgement against Bayer regarding carcinogens in the lawn care chemical, RoundUp, it's likely more cities fill be turning to organic practices, and away from chemicals.

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