Former Chemical Applicator: ‘I Am Literally Ashamed of Myself for Being Part of It’
A Conversation With Tom Kelly
To the outside world, Tom Kelly of Milford, N.H., has turned the lawn care industry on its ear in remarkably short period of time. Seemingly out of nowhere, his new company, FireBelly Organics, had the trade show known as New England Grows in Boston abuzz with talk of his revolutionary easy-to-use lawn care program made from 100 percent organic ingredients.
Behind the scenes, however, the 2010 launch of FireBelly has been sub-consciously contemplated for years. As co-founder of one of the New England region’s most successful multi-location lawn care companies, Tom had a career with lawn chemicals that spanned nearly two decades. What he refers on his new company’s web site as “guilt” began long ago, however.
SafeLawns recently sat down with Tom for a wide-ranging talk about his company and the state of the lawn care industry. Though respectful of many of his former colleagues in the chemical industry, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, either.
SafeLawns — Tom, you have a long background in the lawn care industry. Can you tell us how that came to pass and about some of your experiences?
Tom Kelly — I graduated from Syracuse University in 1993 with a degree in English and was facing a job market not unlike today’s. That fall I found myself working for Barefoot Grass Lawn Service, which at the time was the second largest lawn care provider in the country. Within a couple of years I had been promoted to branch manager of a division on the south shore of Massachusetts. In the fall of 1996 Barefoot Grass was purchased by Chemlawn (now TruGreen) and instead of going to work for them I started The Lawn Dawg.
In the beginning we were promoting Lawn Dawg as the company that would reduce pesticide use by not applying pesticides as a preventative measure. We figured we could do that because of our expertise in agronomics, but as we grew I think we unwittingly just turned into any other chemical lawn care company [in terms of the amount of pesticides used].
I began to take in interest in organics in just the last five years or so and can honestly say at this point that I feel that the organic methods are actually more effective than any chemical program I had ever been involved with.
SL — What changes have you seen in the industry in the last 20 years?
TK — Back when I was an applicator at Barefoot Grass we did everything possible to prevent negative issues within lawns by applying preventative pesticide controls. We were told to spray every single lawn with a blanket application of weed control and every single lawn always got an application of Dursban for preventative insect control. In 1996 EPA introduced the Food Quality Protection Act, which was a program designed to take a good hard look at many of the products we were using as preventative controls. The result was that several of the products we were using every single day were found to be very dangerous. This was the first point in my career that I really began to question just what exactly I was not only involved with as an applicator, and also promoting to the public.
The biggest problem within the lawn care service industry is that there are very few small to midsize companies offering a quality product. Consolidation has had a big hand in this — as there are only two or three major players, who consistently buy out any company as soon as it reaches a certain point in revenue. It’s difficult to do quality control witin a large company format. Unfortunately, when you hire a lawn care service nowadays you should be aware that when the technician arrives at your house your yard is among 30 to 40 stops scheduled for the day. It’s all about quantity and not much about quality.
Finally, today the term “green washing” comes up a lot with regard to lawn care services and products. Nobody wants to be known as a “chemical service” anymore, because consumers are more aware of the dangers that chemical fertilizers and pesticides are presenting. So some companies are calling themselves “organic-based” or “greener.” Most of the large corporate companies claim to have an organic option available. Some companies even go as far as to simply lie about what they are doing. I truly think that this effort to essentially save their business is what in the end will ultimately destroy them. Dishonesty is usually flushed out in the market place — even if it takes a couple of years.
SL — You made a fairly radical change by opening FireBelly Organics. Can you tell us about the reasons why FireBelly came to be?
TK — It may appear on the outside that the change was radical, but I would disagree. I had been considering organics and researching the methods for a long time. There are many people in the organic industry who have been way ahead of their time in terms of using organic methods and now I think this philosophy should be brought into the mainstream.
What really disappoints me most within the context of the argument of organics versus chemicals is the perception that there is absolutely no common ground. On the chemical side I think you will find that most applicators and even middle management staff typically do not treat their own lawns with the products that their companies provide to the public. It’s the corporate structure and upper management staffs that continue to push the fact that organic products are almost mythical and useless. You would think that this is true of the other side too but I don’t think it is. I had a anti-pesticide activist ask me last week if I could introduce her to some of the pro-chemical people just so she could open up a dialogue with them. I suggested that maybe that wasn’t the best idea as I was certain she would be met with a very aggressive stance.
In the end, all lawn care professionals and product developers should be trying to offer the best way to have a healthy lawn. Fire Belly is just another means to get there and sometimes I just don’t understand all the resentment that the chemical side seems to promote.
SL — Great name. I wasn’t sure at first, but I really think it’s a name to remember. Where did that come from?
TK — I really wish that we had a good story for this question because I get asked it all the time. The fact is that just brainstormed for a few weeks over many different names and logos. This is what we came up with although I’m open to some suggestions as to a better story that would be more interesting to tell.
SL — You market the “world’s first organic lawn care program.” What does that mean exactly and what are the benefits to the consumer and the lawn?
TK — Organic lawn care has gone through some significant growth very quickly. There are new products and new technology coming out all the time and we expect that the market place will continue to be flooded in the coming years. What FireBelly set out to do was to simplify the process for people who want to stop using pesticides and chemical fertilizers on their lawns. Instead of being confused about what to use and when to use it we provide it in a very easy-to-use and easy-to-understand program.
When you sign up for the FireBelly program we ship the products to you over the course of the year. You don’t have to store everything for future use and, when the products arrive throughout the lawn season, it helps to remind you that it is time to treat the lawn.
In terms of agronomics, our organic program is based on improving the life of the soil. In most cases, especially after lawns have been treated with chemicals, soil from which lawns grow is stale and void of any microbial activity altogether. When the microbial activity is re-stimulated, the organic matter in the soil increases greatly and when this happens the grass literally flourishes. By using ingredients like kelp, humic acid and naturally occurring macronutrients — and combining them with beneficial strains of bacteria — we are creating the perfect environment for any plant to thrive. The key is consistency over the course of a growing season.
SL — Do customers have the ability to customize your program for their own needs?
TK — We have the basic program that consists of six seasonally specific treatments. We stress the fact that no matter what type of grass you have or what climate you live in this system is effective because it is more about the soil and less about the plant. By applying our six treatments in conjunction with each other the results can be incredible.
In addition to our basic program we offer supplemental products that can enhance the program based on a lawn’s individual needs. We offer a liquid corn gluten product for weed prevention and have several different methods for controlling insects. We also implore our customers to perform a soil test at least every two years to determine any specific needs that their lawn may require. The report that we send you as a result of the soil test is extremely detailed and often times uncovers a specific issue that could be creating a problem with the appearance of the lawn.
SL — How does your shipping program work? You’ll deliver to the U.S. and Canada, correct?
TK — We deliver our products anywhere in the United States and Canada, that’s correct. We consider the seasonal shipping part of our program to be a big benefit in terms of the success of your lawn care routine. Because we send you the products over three shipments you never have to worry about going out and purchasing additional lawn care treatments. We’ve found that even the person who is very excited about their lawn in April has his or her interest drop off when July arrives. When our product shows up at their front door it reminds them that it’s time to treat the lawn.
SL — How difficult is the application process for the average homeowner?
TK — Our products are extremely easy to apply. They come in ready-to-use hose end sprayers that attach directly to your garden hose. There is no mixing, no measuring and you simply put the container on your hose and spray it on your lawn. For bigger properties we include a sprayer that is able to cover more ground more effectively the difference is you simply need to pour the products into the spraying container.
SL — Can a landscaper be hired to apply your product?
TK — We get calls all the time from people who want to use our products, but do not want to have to do it themselves. We have a program for lawn care companies to use our products and become a “certified provider.” Our goal is to find reputable companies who can work in conjunction with us to allow the consumer to go organic on a service basis. There are so many cross marketing opportunities here, especially with a product that is in such high demand. We sell all of our products in bulk containers as well.
SL — You offer an affiliate marketing program, which is not the same as a multi-level marketing program. Can you explain how that works?
TK — One of the ways in which we are marketing our product is through an affiliate program. We have found that so many people are looking for an opportunity to legitimately make a difference in the world. Many believe that reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and dangerous pesticides is something that is a tangible impact in terms of the environment. Our distributor opportunity allows people to promote a safe method of treating lawns without the use of chemicals, which literally makes a difference right in their own back yards and neighborhoods. We have stay-at-home moms, larger online stores and even a couple of charities that promote our products and get paid a commission to do it. The way it works is that you are set up with your own FireBelly website and can personalize it to a certain extent. You then have the ability to accept credit cards, don’t have to carry any inventory and we handle all of the customer service here at headquarters. It really is a perfect way to make a difference in the environment and make a few dollars doing it.
SL — I want to switch gears for a minute. Right in your own state, New Hampshire, the legislature is debating a couple of controversial bills. One would ban phosphorus fertilizers. The other would ban pesticide applications. What’s your view on these bills?
TK — Specifically in New Hampshire, the ban on phosphorus is a total no-brainer. Having seen literally thousands and thousands of soil tests in my career in lawn care I can tell you that just about every single square foot of soil in the state of New Hampshire is superfluous in phosphorus. There just isn’t any reason to continue to add more because it leaches immediately into ground and surface water causing algae blooms and other environmental issues. The problem is that the phosphorus in the soil isn’t readily available to be used by the grass plants. When the organic matter in the soil is improved and acid levels are neutralized, all the nutrients become much more readily available to support the plants’ growth.
I do support a ban on pesticide applications for cosmetic purposes. The reason I support the ban is because there are currently alternatives available to replace these dangerous chemicals and the public simply isn’t aware of them. Let me use Harvard University as an example. Several years ago they created an initiative to completely eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the grounds through out the university. I can tell you first-hand that the grass at Harvard Yard is among the nicest I have ever seen and has been maintained with out one treatment that involved the application chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
SL — A lot of lawn care professionals and licensed pesticide applicators were at the New Hampshire hearing insisting that their products were safe when used as directed. Care to comment?
TK — I will be brief with this one because I don’t want to offend many of the lawn care professionals out there. I can tell you first-hand that the great majority of lawn care technicians are among some of the hardest working, well-intentioned people I have ever met. On our FireBellyOrganics.com website, though, I give the example of a story that was told over and over again by an acquaintance, who has been in the industry for a long time. One of his favorite stories to tell was about hundreds of dead birds that were discovered on an athletic field the morning after a pesticide application was performed. He thought it was funny to talk about the means in which he and his coworkers went through to quickly cover up the event. When I think back about the dozens of times I’ve heard this individual tell this story I am literally ashamed of myself for being part of it.
To address your question more directly: I would be interested to know how many of those licensed pesticide applicators willingly use the same products on their own lawns. I’m here to tell you that it isn’t a whole lot of them.
SL — Lawns are becoming controversial because of the pesticides and fertilizers. What’s your view on that? It seems as if FireBelly is addressing a lot of the major concerns consumers seem to be voicing.
TK — The very simple fact of the matter is that any body can have a very nice lawn without using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s just a factual statement. As I said earlier, go to Harvard Yard or Battery Park in New York City and you will see that by using organic methods you can get incredible results. The goal of FireBelly is to simplify the approach and, yes, address the concerns that are creating a controversial environment. When there is a bona fide solution to a dangerous or controversial issue doesn’t it just seem to make sense to err on the side of caution.
SL — The disclaimer here is that you’ve stepped up to become a big supporter of SafeLawns and our mission, as well as the movie, A Chemical Reaction. Tell us about that decision.
TK — I can tell you I’ve made a lot of people angry in the chemical lawn care industry! I understand that to some I look like a hypocrite because I’ve jumped ship from my own chemical company, but that isn’t the case at all. The chemical lawn care industry, for some reason. goes berserk whey you even mention the fact that you can achieve a nice lawn without using products that many believe to be dangerous. This remains a mystery to me, because the truth is that it’s very easy to make the transition. I truly believe this is the result of some very stubborn and perhaps even ignorant individuals who refuse to accept change.
I believe that it is important to support these particular vehicles for change when you truly believe that the change in question is for forward progress. SafeLawns is an incredible organization in terms of education and information. When the chemical lawn care spokespeople stand up and say that they are the “true environmentalists,” I’m not sure that they even understand how ignorant they sound and how thinly veiled the rhetoric really is. What SafeLawns does is promote straightforward information about an important subject matter. The SafeLawns message isn’t done in a harmful or distasteful way that insults people’s intelligence. How can we not stand behind that 100 percent? Not only are we happy to support the cause, we are thankful that somebody is doing it in manner that makes sense.
SL — What’s the future of lawn care? Do you think it will be 100 percent organic one day?
TK — I’ve spent my entire adult life performing lawn treatments and researching better ways to create a healthy stand of turfgrass. When you actually think about the whole thing, it really does seem to be pretty meaningless in relation to some of the serious issues that we are faced with today. But having a nice lawn is one of those things that just makes us feel good about ourselves and our environment. Up to this point, in many cases, it’s been achieved using products that have been proven to be dangerous. Now that there are alternatives, there is no doubt in my mind that lawn care will be 100 percent organic. Probably sooner than later.