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The new normal: How the green industry is adapting

April 13, 2020 -  By , , and
Virginia Green Lawn Care spray tech (Photo: Tony Ventouris)

As of press time, in most states, landscape and lawn care companies have been deemed essential. (Photo: Tony Ventouris)

In a short amount of time, things have changed drastically in the U.S. and in the lawn care and landscape industry as well.

Companies around the nation are learning how they can (or can’t) operate in a pandemic. COVID-19, or the coronavirus, has come at a time when many companies typically are preparing to ramp up their businesses for a busy season … now, they are nervously watching to see what’s next. Social distancing, disinfecting shared equipment and limiting the number of passengers in trucks are just some of the measures being taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In some states, the measures are more harsh.

Chris Senske, president of Senske Services in Kennewick, Wash., sums it up with his situation in Washington: “We’ll continue to operate as long as and until someone tells us that we can’t.”

The storyline of the coronavirus pandemic seems to change hourly. The reports presented here were conducted in late March. The LM team is continuously interviewing sources from around the country and posting those interviews at LandscapeManagement.net.

Good, bad or otherwise?

Yards Done Right in Westlake, Ohio, is a two-person company of husband and wife Jim and Judy Beveridge. So far, they’ve been able to continue work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jim Beveridge says that it’s great the company is able to continue business as usual, but customers have not been keeping the prescribed 6 feet of distance. Because he and his wife Judy are in an at-risk age range, they’ve begun to monitor their health.

Essential workers mulching (Photo: LM Staff)

Staying safe Companies who have been deemed “essential” are taking precautions with employees. (Photo: LM Staff)

For now, pest control treatments are deemed an essential business, and so Yards Done Right has been busy with tick and mosquito treatments. Technicians already wear personal protective equipment for applications, but they take extra steps, like changing to a fresh pair of gloves when dropping off bills and any other leave-behinds.

“We don’t want to infect them, and we don’t want them to infect us,” Jim says. “We want this thing to go away as soon as possible.”

As of now, they’re working under vague circumstances, going off of Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted’s statements that work can continue so long as safe business practices are in place.

“We have not been designated good, bad or otherwise by the state,” Jim says. “There are a lot of frustrated landscapers. Nobody is making decisive decisions. I wish states would come out with a yes or no. Michigan is not letting any landscaper out their door.”

Shutdown in Michigan

For Bedell Property Management in Milford, Mich., it is not business as usual, according to Michael Bedell, owner, horticulturalist and landscape designer.

This is because as of 12:01 a.m. on March 24, all nonessential businesses shut down through at least April 13, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer specifically stipulated that landscapers and florists are not considered essential businesses.

“We aren’t to provide any sort of service and are basically to stand down and stay home at this point,” Bedell says.

Bedell says he’s anticipating as much as a 50 percent dip in revenue this season. While he says core services such as mowing, pruning and fall cleanups may pick up eventually, Bedell expects big hardscape projects, landscape design/build jobs, annual flower installations, installations of perennial gardens and upgrades and changes to irrigation systems will fall by the wayside.

“I think this’ll be how it played out for my business during the (’08-’09) recession, and we were very hard hit with that in southeast Michigan,” Bedell says. He admits that he’s thrown for a loop because he’s not able to budget or schedule during the downtime. “As an owner, this turns into how much or will I see a paycheck for the rest of the season … Right now, we’re, in theory, starting back up on April 14, but will we? And what will it look like if it keeps getting pushed back?”

Cautious in Colorado

Mike DePriest, general manager and owner of Longs Peak Landscape, Longmont, Colo., never thought he’d have a day like he did when LM spoke with him. He held three different meetings, repeating the same basic speech each time. The message? Stay safe, be smart, do your best not to spread sickness.

Company meeting spaced apart (Photo: Landscape Development Inc.)

Cleanup operation Companies like California’s Landscape Development Inc. are disinfecting equipment often and observing social distancing. (Photo: Landscape Development Inc.)

Longs Peak Landscape is continuing to work, as snow removal work has been deemed essential in Colorado, and the landscape industry can continue as long as social distancing and teleworking is put in practice. But, DePriest fears the COVID-19 outbreak will soon be much worse in Colorado, and he is insisting his team takes action now.

DePriest unveiled a new set of guidelines for the company, which includes:

  • No field staff allowed in the office and no one allowed in the shop;
  • Only key personnel allowed in the office and limit to one person per room;
  • Ship materials directly to as many jobs as possible;
  • Clean vehicles, equipment and public items regularly; and
  • Avoid unnecessary expenses.

“I told everyone, this is the most people I want to see in the office (for the meetings),” DePriest says. “Don’t come here and be irresponsible. We don’t have the luxury of pressing pause on our season. Let’s go to work, but let’s be safe.”

DePriest reports that not many of his customers have canceled work, but he worries that it might be because they are preoccupied with other things. In order to be proactive, DePriest has challenged his sales team to win some big commercial landscaping accounts.

“Keep in mind, people aren’t going to want to see their landscapes die,” he adds. “The cost to maintain it is way better than the cost to replace it.”

The mood in the room for the meetings was nervous, DePriest says. But, for now, they can move forward and everyone is on the same page.

“I had a couple guys reach out to me afterward and thank me. They said thank you for being a good leader and thank you for keeping us working; we’re here for you,” DePriest says. “My wife is a nurse practitioner, and my mom is a nurse. I’ve always had health care (employees) as part of my inner circle. When everyone in health care is really nervous? That means we should be really nervous. I had two guys high-five when they walked in. I told them, never again, we are not touching each other. Everyone stays 10 feet apart from now on.”

Optimism in Florida and Georgia

For One Two Tree in Miami, the business has been designated an essential business and for that, Dusty Montiel, general manager, says he’s happy.

“We have been lucky due to the fact that we work outside and for the county, (that) we have been deemed an essential business,” he says. “We have most of our outside staff operating.”

Indoors, though, One Two Tree has made a few modifications.

“We have made some changes to our office personnel and are rotating days for them to come in to minimize contact with one another,” he says.

Other adjustments are similar to what other operations are doing, such as disinfecting high-use and contact areas. Another change is adjusting the times that field personnel come into the office.

Arbor-Nomics Turf in Norcross, Ga., is also taking the appropriate safety precautions during the pandemic. Richard Bare, CEO, is optimistic because his company is still hard at work.

Longs Peak Landscape meeting outside (Photo: Mike DePriest)

Take it outside Meetings at Longs Peak Landscape are held outside, with employees spaced more than 6 feet apart. (Photo: Mike DePriest)

“We don’t mind working evenings and weekends because we are in an essential industry,” Bare says. “We aren’t having to stay at home during this crisis waiting for our government check to pay our mounting bills … Someone has to keep our economic engine going so these unfortunate industries can come back again.”

While Arbor-Nomics has embraced a positive outlook for the time being, the company maintains a realistic attitude in that it has curtailed shopping for new trucks and other large capital expenditures because of the present uncertainty.

“I agree with President Trump that the financial crisis could be worse than COVID-19,” Bare says. “We are a country that operates on cash flow, not government handouts.”

Communicating with the industry

“Frenetic” is how Andrew Bray, vice president of government relations for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), describes the pace of his days since the green industry began to respond to COVID-19.

“Yesterday, we got something negative from Wisconsin, today the governor of Michigan said we’re not essential, 30 minutes after that, Minnesota said we are essential and 15 minutes after that, the state of Washington said we’re essential,” Bray reports.

From the minute NALP began to process the magnitude of the coronavirus, it became a question of what the organization was doing on Capitol Hill to advocate for federal funds for the landscape industry and to advocate for companies to stay working as essential businesses.

NALP is keeping the industry apprised of the full state-by-state guide of the current mandates on its website.

The association also is working with companies to help them understand federal aid available through stimulus bills, including the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and the $2 trillion relief bill. “What I’ve been hearing on Capitol Hill is there’s likely three more bills coming,” Bray explains. “This bill will hopefully get us through the next 30 days, and then Congress is going to have to act again.

“We’re doing all we can to communicate with (the industry) and advocate for them,” he says. “Some of them will have to make their own professional and personal decisions, and we’re here to help guide them.”

This article is tagged with , and posted in 0420, Cover story, COVID-19
Sarah Webb

About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's associate editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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