Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Out & About with AOLCP Mike Wallick

Out & About with AOLCPs

Award-Winning Organic Turfgrass at the University of Texas at Austin

by Kathy Litchfield

Mike Wallick
AUSTIN, TEXAS — Someone once asked Mike Wallick if he knew what an “expert” was. The answer he received was “someone more than 50 miles from home, with a briefcase.”

As West Campus Supervisor for Landscape Services at the University of Texas at Austin for the last seven years, Wallick knows that diplomas and degrees carry weight. His brand new NOFA accreditation (PA course, 2013) is increasing his credibility not only among his colleagues and superiors, but within the greater Austin community.

“Becoming accredited is the career accomplishment I am most proud of, as it reveals a holistic approach to the concept of ‘land care’ and outlines the program for us to align ourselves with the natural processes at work and/or help to restore those processes,” he said. 

In 2012, turf under his purview won the Texas Turf Grass Association (TTA) statewide award for turf grass management. It had been under an intensive organic program dedicated to building soil health for three years at the time of the award, he said.

It was the first and so far, the only, turf area under organic management to win an award from TTA, and got the cover of the quarterly magazine and the feature article, and helped Wallick further increase understanding about the validity of organic turf management systems.

This photo was the cover of the TTA 
4th quarter magazine in 2012
The award-winning site is a highly public, very high-profile area of campus along University Avenue that offers an impressive view corridor to the university’s emblematic tower, including the South Mall, about 22,000 square feet of turf bordered by classroom buildings on two sides and lined with 75-year-old live oaks.

“After a couple of years of the program on University Avenue, we started to see some pretty significant improvements in both quality of turf and in the shrubs and perennials,” he said, “who were getting the overflow of the organics we were putting out. Plus every year we’d add compost to those beds before mulching.”

Wallick’s career in the land care industry spans 40 years and includes stints in both the public and private sector in Texas, California, Illinois and Tennessee. A collection of experiences along the way contributed to his journey to organic land care and its benefits to human health as well as soil health.
Wallick was a member of the board of directors of the Illinois Arborist Association in the 1980’s while also serving as a volunteer urban forestry instructor with The Open Lands Project in Chicago. He was a certified arborist with the International Society of Arboriculture and proctored the certification exam; he is also a graduate of the University of Florida’s Urban Forestry Institute. He had heard about the NOFA accreditation program for several years and said he “finally wrangled my way there this past year.”
“My experiences (over the years) have led me to understand that the chemical/industrial way in agriculture and landscape is a serious mistake and I believe that putting into practice organic management principles is necessary to rescue our landscapes and farms, so the natural processes can work their magic and restore the health of our soils and us,” he said.

He took the accreditation course in part because, “I wanted the added credibility to show that Organics is not Voodoo Hippie foolishness or bugs in a jug.  That our organic program is based in science and that what we’re doing here is not just a landscape management issue – it is a much broader land care program,” said Wallick, who graduated from the same university he works for in 1973, the same year he started organic gardening in raised beds at his home outside of Austin.

With the increase of “sustainability” initiatives on college campuses within the last decade, Wallick was ready in 2008 when his supervisor asked him to organize an organic fertilization program. He had been researching organic systems and found a Houston-based vendor who was the president of the Organic Horticulture Benefits Alliance, of which the university is now a member, to provide organic materials and information. 

Presently about 58,000 square feet of turf are being maintained with an intensive organic program at the University of Texas at Austin, the remainder under a less intensive program. The university campus spans 450 acres with about 125 acres of turf or ground cover and 75 acres of shrub, perennial or annual beds, he said. With a staff of 70, crews are split into zones they are responsible for maintaining.

Irrigation is a huge issue in the Austin area, where in 2011 they experienced the worst drought in recorded history in the state of Texas, Wallick said. While normally the city receives 32-33 inches of rain a year, that year they received just over 11 inches.

Reacting to severe water restrictions, that same year the university spent over $1 million to replace its automatic irrigation system on campus, adding a sophisticated, centralized and computerized system featuring rain sensors and flow meters. They also changed out every nozzle on campus to a more water efficient  design, he said.

In addition to saving water and increasing efficiency, the system allowed them to enter into a water budget agreement with the city so that they could water outside of the regulated times and days of the week, at least until the situation worsens.

“We’re also using less water because of the fact that there’s so much additional organic material that holds more water, and because we’re working with cultural practices such as aeration, allowing the roots to grow deeper and get into the reservoir of water available to them,” he said.

“A lot of people thought this was voodoo science stuff at first, but the (award winning) site is my proof of concept deal, and it worked. I knew it would work and I wanted it in a place where it would have high impact. It also helps to have the support of university administration, where they can readily see the results outside of their windows.”

As his budget allows, Wallick hopes to further expand his intensive organic program into additional areas of campus, training employees in the other maintenance zones by “leading by example” – working with them hands-on and educating them “about why we’re doing what we’re doing in a certain way so that they buy into the program,” he said. 
Left to right: Andrew Jackson: Groundskeeper, David Savioe: Gardener, Terry Minica: Gardener, Justin Hayes: Crew Leader

Wallick has words of wisdom for others wanting to integrate OLC systems on college campuses:

  1. Have a clear technical understanding of organic land care so that you can build an adequate program to meet your specific needs. 
  2. Get your staff to buy in so they’re not just following orders, but fully understanding why they’re doing things in this new and different way. Lead by example, work with your employees every step of the way to show them the benefits and the bigger picture and relate it back to their livelihoods. (Example: the landscape looks and maintains better with this new organic system; the better our campus landscape looks, the more job security we’ll have.)
  3. Fully believe that your organic program will work and be able to sell it to the people you work for. “The mistake a lot of people in the landscape profession make is thinking that the only thing you have to do is be technically adept. But that’s not enough,” he said. “You have to be able to sell your program to both the people doing the work with you and the people who control the purse strings.”
Wallick feels very supported by university administration and has been rewarded for his efforts when asking for updated equipment. Within the last five years he has upgraded mowers and aeration equipment, increasing efficiency “by 100 times,” he said.

“And when you show results, people can look and see that it’s working and suddenly your requests get more attention. Nothing succeeds like success. If you’re careful in thinking about how you want to build your program, you’re prioritizing in your own mind what you need first and that’s what you push for.”

These days, Wallick often looks towards the bigger picture. With four children and three grandchildren living within driving distance, family is important to him. He and his wife Faith are committed to gardening organically at their Austin home, and enjoy spending time in the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas on the 35 acres they own.

“The most rewarding thing about OLC is becoming aware of the natural world and its processes, and learning to work with them instead of forcing our will upon them,” he said. “It’s the old adage about leaving a place better than when you found it. I think about what I’m leaving for the generations coming after me. A lot of it seems to be a mess, especially in the way we’ve been doing business for the last 50 years. I feel like the people who are aware have an obligation to take whatever it is they’re good at and make an impact that will benefit future generations.”

“Working on a college campus is also helpful  because the kids have a lot of optimism and a lot of energy,” he added. “And so it gives me hope that they will be able to take things to the next level in terms of fixing some of these problems we’re facing today.”