New Jersey fertilizer bill: Five years later

November 30, 2015 -  By

Has New Jersey’s landmark fertilizer bill made an impact? 

In January 2011, New Jersey enacted a three-phase, statewide fertilizer pre-emption bill, touted by the state as the most restrictive fertilizer legislation in the country. The rollout included application blackout dates, public education, a professional certification requirement and a provision restricting the type of fertilizer that can be sold in the state.

Nearly five years later, some lawn care and landscape business owners in the Garden State say the law remains a major hurdle for their businesses, and they question whether it’s done any good.

Blackout dates challenging

The constraints on workdays have been the most challenging obstacle, some lawn care professionals say. Under the ruling, commercial fertilizer applicators are prohibited from applying nitrogen or phosphorus fertilizer between Dec. 1 and March 1, which shortens the season. Products containing potassium, lime and composts aren’t restricted. Homeowners can’t apply fertilizer after Nov. 15 and before March 1. Jeff Cooper, president of Lawn Connection in West Berlin, N.J., says his 30-year-old company had to lay off six full-time, salaried technicians to accommodate constraints on work dates for the first time. Before, it laid off only hourly or seasonal employees, not technicians, during the slow months. The $3 million company has 10 full-time and 14 part-time employees.

“I am now restricted in new hires, since my work time has become shortened, and I’m forced to use part-time workers instead of full-time hires,” Cooper says. It’s created problems for the company in terms of training, scheduling and recruiting, as part-time workers typically aren’t the same caliber as full-time employees. He says the reduced workdays cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

“It’s very tough for us to hire full-time employees when we only have eight months to do our work,” he says. “We valued every day we had to produce already. When days are taken out, we feel you can’t make that time up; you can only try to soften the hurt.”

David Newman, vice president of operations for franchisor Lawn Doctor, says its franchisees in New Jersey are also struggling with the hard start and stop dates for fertilizer applications.

“This year, our franchisees in the area got a very late start due to the weather this spring, but we will still have to finish fertilizer applications by Dec. 1, regardless of the weather at that time,” Newman says. “It has definitely had an impact on labor, as well. Owners have had to lay off their applicators earlier and bring them back later than they would have previously.”

But blackout dates are not the only gripe. Paul Bruni, co-owner of Delaware Valley Spray Service, in Hainesport, N.J., says state Department of Environmental Protection and county board of health inspections have increased over the past five years. The company does about $1 million in annual revenue with eight employees and a part-time secretary.

His trucks always pass inspections, but he says it throws off his routes. He’s also concerned about the impression customers get when they see his vehicles being inspected. Despite his frustrations, Bruni says he understands why New Jersey passed the law. He points to untrained, unscrupulous operators.

“Ultimately, the law punishes companies like us that were doing things correctly and didn’t require this kind of regulation,” he says. Those habits (like leaving fertilizer on the ground) were what separated successful companies from the unsuccessful ones.

“But now those bad habits have cost the industry on a larger scale,” Bruni says. “Better training might have been the answer before putting a major law into effect.”

Environmental impact

Fertilizer runoff into Barnegat Bay, a 42-mile inlet along the coast of Ocean County, N.J., was the catalyst for the state passing a stringent law.

So, has it done any good? Officials say it’s too soon to tell.

It’s difficult to quantify what impact the legislation has had on the bay at this point, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).

“The fertilizer law is the most stringent in its kind in the nation, but the requirements were issued in phases,” says Bob Considine, press director for the NJDEP.

The first phase, starting in 2011, required the use of best management practices and public outreach. In 2012, the second phase initiated a certification program for professional fertilizer applicators and lawn care providers. And the third phase, which started in 2013, requires manufacturers to provide fertilizers with at least 20 percent slow-release nitrogen and no phosphorus, unless deemed necessary by a soil test.

“So it’s only been about a year and a half since the real guts of the law has been in order—and that doesn’t account for the folks who were still using the older fertilizer they had in their own stocks,” he says.

Some industry members thought the New Jersey law would make way for other states to enact similar laws. To date, only Maryland has done so—to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Its Fertilizer Use Act of 2011 went into effect in fall 2013. Among other restrictions, it requires professional certification and blackout dates between Nov. 15 and March 1, though it allows professionals to apply water-soluble nitrogen to lawns at a specified rate from Nov. 16 to Dec. 1.

Landscape industry experts say if fertilizer is applied properly to turf, runoff is not a concern.

“The science shows that if fertilizer is applied to grass, that’s where it stays,” says Gregg Robertson, a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association. Robertson has been involved in pushing for research to dictate whether a similar law would be passed in Pennsylvania. To date, no new fertilizer legislation has been enacted there.

Robertson and others say that “emotion-based” evidence is what pushed through tough fertilization laws in New Jersey and Maryland. That’s why people fighting similar legislation in other states say spreading “science-based” information is vital. Robertson points to an Environmental Protection Agency report, which said a “dense vegetative cover of turfgrass” reduces pollution and runoff.

“If you ask the general public if fertilizing lawns is bad, there seems to be a tendency to say ‘yes,’” Robertson says. “As an industry we need to overcome that. Environmental sciences are on our side. The problem is a lot of people don’t know that. Even some folks within the industry mistakenly believe that fertilizing is bad—and that’s hurting the cause.”

Professionals who are taking care to properly fertilize lawns must promote it, says Peter Landschoot, Ph.D., professor of turfgrass science at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Landscape business owners should inform customers and the public that they clean up fertilizer that lands in the street and on driveways by blowing it back onto the turf—and that they use deflectors on their spreaders to keep fertilizer on turf,” he says. “Spreading the word on enhanced efficiency nitrogen fertilizers is another way business owners can promote responsible fertilizer use.”

The most important message to get across to the public, Landschoot adds, is that a healthy turf acts as a buffer against nutrient runoff. “I still run into decision makers who are convinced that just as much runoff occurs from lawns as from impervious surfaces,” Landschoot says. “Education is the key.”

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