We’re Winning the Organic Battle, But Who Will Collect the Spoils?
Brett Perry launched a new line of “holistic” garden products named Vaccinate and Triffid at the Independent Garden Center Show in Chicago last week.
THESE ARE, NO MATTER how you look at it, heady times for the organic lawn and garden movement. Unlike any other fluctuation in market forces for the past 50 years, this time organics are here — to stay.
That is, from almost any angle, a major victory that can be claimed simultaneously by the environment, environmental activists and every child, pet and parent who would otherwise be negatively affected by a continued onslaught of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Under those circumstances, we ought to be doing collective cartwheels in the aisles of trade shows like the Independent Garden Center Show that was held last week on Navy Pier in Chicago. Every third booth was touting something “organic,” or “sustainable,” or “eco-” or “earth-friendly.” If you were even looking for a straight chemical solution, you’d almost have to ask directions or scour deeply into the show program.
That is, however, if you didn’t bump squarely into the show’s two largest vendor booths in the center of the cavernous room. Scotts Miracle Gro and Bayer Advanced were practically EVERYWHERE at the IGC Show, which has become the must-attend horticultural event in the United States in its remarkably short four-year history.
And therein lies the primary hindrance to a major organic celebration: two elephants basically suck the air out of a room filled with ants. Or, in other words, it is absolutely going to be an organic world in lawn and garden in the years ahead, but the business landscape will likely not change one iota. Scotts Miracle Gro will dominate; Bayer will take most of what’s left and every other company with honorable intentions will scramble for the share of the marketplace that simply finds those two companies distasteful.
WOLVES IN SHEEPS’ CLOTHING?
That Scotts and Bayer are both making major unprecedented forays into organics is unmistakable. The Scotts organic line of pesticides launched two years ago, Ortho EcoSense, seems poised to gobble up even more shelf space in the near term. And the organic fertilizer and soils brand that Scotts once purchased just to kill — Whitney Farms — is back with a newfound vengeance. Remarkably, a quick glance at the front of the Whitney Farms packaging didn’t have any mention of its owner, Scotts Miracle Gro.
Bayer, likewise, has undergone a stunning image makeover with its launch of the green labeled Natria products. A massive banner two stories tall announced the products’ arrival on the scene in Chicago, as did a prodigious exhibit in the main hallway where more than 6,000 garden center owners and employees entered.
As I said, the mere fact that these two giants of the industry are making this kind of investment into natural lines of products is ultimately a victory. That doesn’t mean, however, a massive amount of teeth gnashing won’t go into this transition — for us, and them. It’s rather like the Titanic trying to change engines as it simultaneously tries to change course with the iceberg just ahead. Will it make the turn, or will it crash, and where will that leave all the tiny boats in its wake?
Oh, and don’t think Bayer and Scotts can’t sense the iceberg. They know where Europe and France have already headed with regard to organics in gardening and they’ve watched from the loser’s side of the courtroom and town hall time after time in Canada as the lawn pesticide bans have swept across that nation. They have fought, and lost, recent battles in New York and New Jersey about no-phosphorus fertilizers and erosion control. And Florida has all but killed the long-term prospects of its chemical lawn fertilizer industry with its seasonal bans on nitrogen applications and strong water conservation campaigns.
The guess from this perspective is that Scotts and Bayer will eventually figure it out. They’ve got the cashflow and the research programs to develop, or purchase, the best new earth friendly technology on the planet. The full transition will take time — five to 10 years is a good estimate — and that leaves a narrow window for all the other players to make their move.
About 100 of my conversations in Chicago centered around what Scotts’ and Bayer’s new sales pitch must sound like. They can’t and won’t openly damn their synthetic chemical lines, which still represent about 90 percent of their business. That makes it really difficult to justify organics to the consumer — especially the vast majority of people in the United States who still don’t comprehend or trust the inherent value proposition of organic products.
Right now Scotts and Bayer are simply saying they have “natural alternatives for the customers who want them.” At some point, though, they’re going to have to come out with some of the obvious negatives that are giving companies like the upstart EcoSmart Technologies such a jumpstart today. “Now There is a Safe and Effective Alternative to Synthetic Pesticides,” says the advertisements for EcoSmart, which can already be found at many local supermarkets, superstores and garden centers.
The dilemma is especially difficult for a company like Neudorff of Germany, a research-only firm which licenses its inventions to other companies. Neudorff recently launched Fiesta, the most exciting new product of the young Millennium — a naturally occurring selective herbicide that allows grass to grow while killing many weeds including dandelions.
Neudorff’s fortunes should be shooting the moon already, except for one inescapable fact: Scotts and Bayer control the market. Until those two companies are willing to tell the truth about the toxicity associated with 2,4-D and other synthetic chemical weed killers, they’re not going to sell much of Neudorff’s new invention. It just doesn’t make any sense for the average consumer to pay more for a safer weed control product if no one is telling them their regular weed ’n feed is dangerous as hell.
Neudorff’s Fiesta, by the way, is sold under the brands of Ortho EcoSense and, in 2011, in Bayer’s new Natria line. No other companies are in line to license the product, according to sources at the Chicago show.
SO WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
If you’ve ever been in a body of water with a large boat turning, you know the attenuating ripples are vast. The nuances of the impact are felt differently on every shore, just as the Scotts and Bayer shift to natural products will have different impacts at various points in our nation. In some markets, existing organic brands have a foothold and will be difficult to dislodge — and will therefore be targets for buyouts by the giants. In other massive areas, Scotts and Bayer, with their Whitney Farms and Natria brands, will literally be the only choices on the shelves.
The ants need to behave like ants, banding together for the most efficient protection and production. When the water calms, whether it’s five or 10 years from now, or maybe a bit longer, we need to have done our work by staking our claim and protecting it.
It is Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn himself who likes to equate business with war. In his view, if you garden or grow a lawn, then you’re on his turf — whether you use his stuff or not. If you don’t want to emerge from this battle with your gardening and lawncare choices and dollars all being dominated by the same two players, it’s more important than ever to seek out and support other quality, independent companies.
As the booths in Chicago and so many other trade shows demonstrate, the number of choices in safer, natural products has never, ever been greater. It’s our job — us as the advocates and you as the consumers — to make sure those choices remain intact. Let’s enjoy our victory, but not feel the least bit comfortable in any false laurels.