- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In 2001, a year before Tiger Woods galvanized one of the more raucous galleries in the game’s history by winning the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, a small group of students began a research study at the Long Island state park that could make a far more profound impact on golf by leaving no chemical footprint on the property.

Cornell turfgrass professor Frank Rossi and his team of students arrived at Bethpage to attempt a synthetic-free approach to managing the greens on one of the facility’s five courses (Bethpage Green).

The project is still ongoing, but what Rossi and Co. discovered and reported to the USGA in 2004 was that greens receiving no synthetic pesticide treatment suffered significantly in all three seasons, with many dropping below playability standards by midsummer.

The study produced such convincing results that Long Island softened legislation proposing a pesticide ban on Suffolk County-owned golf courses.

“What we basically discovered is that there is a gap the size of the Grand Canyon between using very little and no pesticides,” Rossi says. “We’re getting closer, using less synthetic product every year as we get more familiar with the challenges. But the issue is also very climate specific. In a more forgiving climate [from a turf-growing perspective] like New England, a pure organic approach is within reach. In a transition zone like the Mid-Atlantic, I don’t see how you could ever [eliminate pesticides] without completely overseeding every three or four years.”

Translation: At this point, an exclusively organic approach to golf course maintenance simply isn’t a viable option from either a playability or financial perspective.

That’s the primary reason fewer than 10 of the approximately 19,400 courses in North America are completely organic, meaning they use no synthetic pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers. And almost all of those are low-end facilities where playing conditions have been sacrificed.

One commonly referenced exception is Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass., an organic club that opened on Cape Cod in 2002. While the Vineyard is a beacon for the future, at least two major factors make the club more of a novelty than a true template.

First, geographically it’s suited to an organic approach. In general, cooler climates like New England and lower-humidity regions like much of the western United States afford far fewer turfgrass challenges than humid regions like the deep South or the worst-of-both-worlds combination of the transition zone (a greenskeeping nightmare that stretches roughly from the Mid-Atlantic to St. Louis). The only real turfgrass bugaboo of those cooler climates is snow mold, which has no known deterrent other than a synthetic pesticide. Martha’s Vineyard, however, experiences little annual snowfall.

Second, the Vineyard has the luxury of a virtually unlimited maintenance budget. The club boasts a $350,000 initiation fee, and its annual dues are $12,000. Given such a war chest, superintendent Jeff Carlson can afford many of the extra personnel and man-hour requirements generally associated with a heightened organic approach to maintenance.

For a growing majority of courses, however, the solution is a strategy known as Integrated Pest Management - the concept of each facility tailoring a turfgrass maintenance plan specific to its own challenges with the goal of using as little synthetic chemicals as possible.

“I’ll give you a perfect example of why an IPM approach is often preferable to a strict organic approach,” says Stuart Cohen, president of Environmental and Turf Services Inc. in Wheaton, a firm that specializes in developing site-specific IPM strategies. “Take Carlson’s situation up at the Vineyard. At one point, he had a situation [Dollar Spot] on his greens that required him to apply an organic treatment every night at dusk.

“If he could have used a conventional fungicide, he might have had to treat only a couple of times a year. Now, one way uses no synthetics, but imagine the carbon footprint if he uses petroleum-powered sprayers. If he uses [backpack-style] individual rigs, imagine the labor cost. Now, which makes more sense? If that fungicide is applied properly, the IPM approach leaves less of a carbon footprint, is less traumatic for the turf than a nightly application of an organic product and is far cheaper.”

The key to implementing an IPM approach successfully is information: discovering which site-specific issues will require synthetic treatment and determining the minimum amount of chemical treatment that can affect the desired result.

There are many educational resources available to aid superintendents in their quest for that information; two of the more notable organizations at the forefront of golf’s green movement are the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, which puts an immense volume of information at the disposal of its members and Audubon International - a nonprofit organization partnering with the USGA and PGA of America to form the Golf and the Environment Initiative.

Starting in 1989, Audubon International (which has nothing to do with the Audubon Society) began issuing interested courses an array of eco-sensitive guidelines to help them earn certification as Cooperative Sanctuaries.

“Of the 16,000-17,000 courses in the U.S., we have 2,500 courses in the certification process and 750 that are fully certified,” Audubon International founder and president Ronald Dodson says.

The reason so few courses have achieved Audubon International’s stamp of approval is more of a statement on the exhaustive certification process (requiring several years, numerous independently collected water and soil samples, a $200 fee and quite a bit of paperwork) than an indictment of the industry’s environmental interest.

Aside from the environmental benefits, Dodson believes switching to an IPM approach might lead to some unexpected long-term rewards. First, using an eco-friendly IPM strategy might not be more expensive than a conventional maintenance approach, as was presumed in initial studies.

Over the first five or six years of the Bethpage project, Rossi’s IPM team expended more resources in time and educational energy than they saved in chemical costs. But in the last two years, they have become so familiar with the site-specific challenges and practices that he thinks the IPM approach has surpassed the conventional plan in terms of expenses.

Even more exciting, Rossi and many other strict IPM/near-organic practitioners are discovering that virtually untreated turf becomes far healthier than routinely treated turf once it survives the weaning period.

“A lot of golf courses are like drug addicts - they are chemically dependent,” Dodson says. “The first several years of adhering to an IPM, they’re going to be strung out. They aren’t going to look so great, because they’re going through chemical withdrawal. But once you get microbially sound turf, the course doesn’t need the chemicals. It’s develops the ability to defend itself against encroachment and disease and is far healthier and cheaper to maintain than before. Aside from environmental stewardship, that’s the upside.”

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