Thursday, June 30, 2016

Inside the Organic Land Care Industry: An Interview with PJC Organic

A Q&A with Pam Newcombe of PJC Organic and Renaissance All Natural Fertilizers, sponsors of the NOFA OLC Organic Land Care Accreditation Course being held in Maine this August.

Pam and Fred Newcombe began PJC Organic as a full service landscape provider specializing in organic fertilization services and in 2006 purchased Renaissance All Natural Fertilizers. Today the company provides product, support and business tools to landscapers, municipalities and schools that want to develop an organic turf care program that fits their business. They also offer organic fertilization services on Boston's North Shore, giving them the opportunity to continually evaluate the products they manufacture and distribute. 

Fred Newcombe of PJC Organic
Q: What is the state of the organic land care industry? Where do you see the greatest growth and what’s driving it? 

The organic land care industry, as it relates to turf, is growing at a faster rate than the conventional market based on feedback from our customers. We’ve found the greatest areas of interest are in states that have implemented pesticide and fertilizer use restrictions. Because there is often a time of transition between passage of laws and required implementation, this change is often seen 2+ years after legislation is in place. The East coast seems to be a leader in this arena. I think the private sector is growing quicker than municipal because of budget issues with towns. 

Q: What are some of the most common challenges professionals face in caring for the land organically and what approach to you take to solving them?
The biggest challenge in the Northeast is that grass is not native, so there is a time of transition required to bring the soil to the place where grass wants to grow, and people can be impatient. Current soil conditions, turf density and budget will determine how long the transition will take. 

By far the most common questions are – what are you going to do about weeds and grubs? Our standard reply is weeds as an indication of underlying soil conditions. If you simply kill a weed it doesn’t mean grass will grow

We try to keep our approach simple by working in 4 areas:
1) Soil chemistry: meet NPK needs and adjust pH
2) Soil Structure: promote porosity & nutrient holding capacity of the soil by improving OM & CEC
3) Soil Biology: feed the microbes so they can feed the plan. When #1 & 2 are addressed, desirable biology will come out of dormancy. On really bad lawns it may be necessary to apply compost, pelleted compost or compost tea 
4) Cultural practices by far is the most important of the 4 steps - proper mowing, watering, over seeding, etc. By focusing on these 4 areas you can create a dense stand of turf that will outcompete weeds. 

The other challenge for both the professional and homeowner is choosing products. Because this is an emerging industry, the government hasn’t begun to regulate the term “organic” in labeling turf and ag products. Unlike like the food industry, turf products are not “certified” organic by the USDA. There are many products that claim to be “organic” but are not All Natural, which can be misleading.

We have chosen to get our Renaissance 8-1-6 OMRI listed. Which means the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), an independent agency, has determined our fertilizer meets the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. Because all our Renaissance formulations are a derivative of our OMRI listed 8-1-6, our Renaissance blends meet the NOP standards. Companies that say their products comply with NOP standards without going through a recognized approval agency are self-certifying and there is no one policing that market right now. Second, we have intentionally kept our Organic Fertilization Service business as a way to test new products coming on the market so we can speak from personal experience when reselling them, and also consider how the products we sell work together. 

Q: What advice do you have for conventional land care professionals who are considering transitioning to organic?
I would say the homeowner demand is growing and eventually legislation will necessitate the change, so be an early adopter and position yourself as a leader in that market. That being said, simply swapping a bag of organic fertilizer for a bag of synthetic fertilizer won’t work. Learning how to take and interpret a soil test is key in determining products and putting together a program. You don’t need to buy expensive equipment - you can have a successful program using granular only and a broadcast spreader, or if you already have the ability to do liquids a granular liquid combination can work as well. Get trained and network. Because there’s no “4 step program” it’s common for us to hear from potential customers that they just finished training and don’t know where to start. This is where we can help, as well as networking organic professionals with one another. Also, don’t fall for the latest products on the market because they might not be there next year. Put together a program that addresses underlying soil conditions and stay the course. 

Q: How has your AOLCP (Accredited Organic Land Care Professional) training and accreditation helped your business?
Fred Newcombe has been an AOLCP since 2005 which has set us apart in the service industry from those just jumping on the wagon. It is also helpful to have the OLC standards to refer to when deciding what things are allowed as a rescue treatment, how often you recommend soil testing, etc. Also being on the NOFA Organic Land Care Approved product list has helped set us apart as a product provider. 

Pam Newcombe of PJC Organic can be reached at, 978-432-1019, or