Monday, October 31, 2016

Q&A with Chip Osborne, President of Osborne Organics, Inc.

1.    Please describe your business in 50 words or less.
Osborne Organics consults with local, state, and federal agencies as well as universities and other institutional clients to transition landscapes to natural, organic practices and protocols with a specialty in natural turf. Osborne Organics has developed the “Systems Approach to Natural Turf Management” and offers professional training around the country.

2.    What is the state of the organic gardening industry? Where do you see the greatest growth and what’s driving it?  I believe the organic gardening, landscape, and turf industries are strong and continually growing. We are currently experiencing a tipping point, or change in the marketplace, that we have pointed to for the past twenty years. Organic practices are no longer on the fringe, but are now mainstream.
Chip Osborne
The concept of the organic landscape began with the homeowner (residential property) some time ago. It is now widely being considered as the management protocol of choice for larger properties, both commercial and private. When that segment is combined with a strong interest by the municipal sector for organic practices, products, and protocols for playing fields and public spaces where children play, we can now point towards some significant numbers.

This is being driven by the public’s perception regarding the dangers of pesticides. We are seeing the results of tireless efforts by many advocates over the years who have worked at the grassroots level to change people’s minds regarding the use of synthetic water soluble fertilizers and chemical pesticides.
It is the change in the marketplace that continues to move all of this forward. In addition to that, legislation is now being enacted around a variety issues at the state, county, and local level regarding restrictions of different types on pesticides and synthetic fertilizer use.

There is growing interest across all segments of society regarding organic practices. They include residential properties that range from small homes to large estates, commercial properties, hotels, resorts, colleges, universities, and golf courses. The main theme across them all is the desire to have a healthier environment for work and play.

There is a geographical component to the acceptance of organic practices. There is no question that Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Westchester County in NY are the birthplaces of organic land care. We are excited to see the growing interest in New Jersey, the mid- Atlantic, particularly Maryland, the upper Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and Southern California. Accredited Organic Land Care Professionals (AOLCPs) can be proud knowing that they are part of an organization that worked from the beginning with others to lay the groundwork to effect tremendous change.

3.    What are some of the most common challenges professionals face in caring for the land organically and what approach do you take to solving them

From my perspective, the problems are not product oriented entirely. There are limitations in materials that we can use, but for the most part most resources are available to us. The organic product industry has evolved to a point where we now have access to state-of-the-art fertility and soil health inputs that focus on the biomass more than the plant. Knowing that a natural system in many cases can manage itself, the product becomes somewhat secondary.

We now have a variety of organic insecticides and fungicides should we need to intervene. For those that manage turf grass and hardscape, a limiting factor can be minimal, cost-effective product to address weeds.

Developing a tolerance, or weed threshold, is critically important in all aspects of the managed landscape. We need to move beyond the concept of a monoculture. That being said, all organic landscape professionals at some point in time are faced with managing a misplaced plant effectively for a client. It can be a challenge, but is getting easier as new materials are developed.

The greatest challenge in my mind is the comfort of organic professionals to communicate to others what we believe in and do. Many of us have adopted these practices to reduce the use of pesticides, others to reduce synthetic runoff, and others because they have always done it that way. Some of us came from the conventional industry and have adopted organic management practices as a result of what we experienced firsthand.

The driving factor for me is the reduction and elimination of pesticide use in the landscape. Contrary to information put forth by the conventional product industry, landscapes do not get better with the use of synthetic materials. I know firsthand that movement towards an organic approach immediately improves the landscape. There is absolutely no question that the organic landscape looks, performs, and pleases to a far greater degree than its chemical counterpart.

4.    What advice do you have for conventional land care professionals who are considering transitioning to organic?

Forward thinking conventional practitioners are beginning to seek out opportunities to understand and learn about organic lawn and land care. It does take the change in market demand to bring many of them to the table. They may not approach organic from the same perspective that we do. It might be, and probably is, more rooted in financial interests, but whatever it takes is fine with me. I firmly believe that the more widespread adoption of organic lawn and land care practices and protocols on a national level is simply limited by the lack of education about how it needs to be approached.

CT NOFA's Organic Land Care Program has responded to the challenge for the past fifteen years to meet that demand. When I interact with the conventional industry, I make them aware that there is a learning curve and that it is to their best interest to seek out education. Because what we do is not just putting down product, those that try the product swap-out will usually fail. In addition to the initial learning experience, keeping abreast of changes with continuing education is, and will be, critically important for all of us.

5.    How do you consider your business to be part of the solution to environmental degradation and overuse of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides? How do you educate your clientele?

Osborne Organics works with a diverse group of clients that range from individual landscape professionals to the federal government and everything in between. We would like to think that in some small way we can influence the market by showing that the debate about the safety and dangers of pesticides is now less relevant because we have proven that alternative non-chemical strategies can work and meet expectations. With strategies that work on one hand and the precautionary principle on the other, it is difficult not to embrace alternatives.