“As more people turned to gardening and public parks during lockdown,” Hirshberg says in an interview from his New Hampshire residence and headquarters of Stonyfield Organic. “The issue of organic lawn care becomes even more prevalent now. An estimated 85 percent of people were turning to the outdoors, and more than 50 percent were going for walks during the COVID lockdown.”
Those lawns have been sprayed with long-used chemicals such as glyphosate, 2,4-D, and Dicamba. By some estimates about two-third of play fields in America get a dose of these chemicals to manage weeds and pests, he says.
Hirshberg, a farmer-turned-entrepreneur, has been rallying for organic practices, be it on the fields or in the parks in his native New Hampshire, for more than three decades. “I see it akin to farming. There is a conversion period of three years, but in the long-run it’s more cost-effective to lay off on the chemical pesticides, herbicides, and oil-based fertilizers.”
That economic argument, he hopes, will win over more Parks and Recreation departments across the country as Hirshberg and Stonyfield, in alliance with non-profits Beyond Pesticides, Non-Toxic Neighborhoods, Osborne Organics and Midwest Grows Green, take their campaign #PlayFree to 35 cities nationwide. Spanning Hawaii to Arizona to Maine, Hirschberg says he wanted this to be relevant in every type of geography and climate: “Whether you’re in a really tropical place like Hawaii or in the deserts of the southwest, this is possible and it’s being done already.”
By creating a critical mass of communities that believe in this mission, he argues, it’ll be easier to spread the knowledge, practice, and know-how to more Parks and Recreation departments throughout the country: “Just like farmers want to talk to farmers. It’s the same for Parks and Rec’s staff. They’d rather talk to each other than talk to me.”
While Hirshberg is working at the municipal level to address our pesticide usage, Coulter Lewis, co-founder and CEO of Sunday is hoping to convert homeowners with his bio-based plant care line, which he started concocting in his own garage two years ago using ingredients that consumers can pronounce: seaweed, molasses, and beetroot, for example. “Packing high concentrations of nutrients into a solution while still maintaining room for soil builders like seaweed hadn’t really been done before,” he says “My neighbors all cracked ‘Breaking Bad’ jokes while I asked if I could try my organic concoctions on their lawns.”
Lewis teamed up with Frank Rossi, a Turf Science PhD, professor at Cornell, and leader in the turf science field who consults baseball venues such as Yankee Stadium to maintain the vitality of their fields. “Frank helped us refine the formulations based on the latest turf science research to maximize the results for our customers.
Unlike most garden center offerings that Lewis says are a “one-size-fits-all” approach, Sunday customizes the formulations to fit different climates and soil health. Hence, the first step in their kit is to send in a soil sample. “What works for my lawn in Boulder, CO isn’t necessarily what works for someone in Denver, CO… no less someone in Florida or Texas.”
Lewis is not new to the organics/natural industry: He founded Quinn Foods with his wife Kristy. But it wasn’t until he got a house of his own did he realize how stagnant the lawn care industry had been.
“I was stumped on how to take care of my own backyard. Beyond that, I was blown away by the toxic ingredients in every best-selling product from legacy brands sold at the hardware store,” he says. “I did some digging. Lawns make up more than 40 million acres of land in the U.S. (grass is technically our third largest crop) and about 75% American households tend to a lawn. So why have we been crop dusting them with the same toxic chemicals for 50 years?”
He’s referring to the same chemicals that Hirshberg is hoping to eliminate from public parks. Glyphosate, a popular herbicide used to suppress weeds, was found in 93 percent of Americans, according to a UCSF study.
While these chemicals are argued to have negative implications for human health, they’re also problematic for the environment: of the 30 most common pesticides used in the US, 29 are toxic to either bees or birds, which could explain dwindling populations in both species.
With so many Americans turning to their gardens during this pandemic, could this be the shift in lawn care that America needed?
“All of this has massive implications for the climate as well,” Hirshberg concludes. “Not only is it safer for our health but we’re talking about dramatic reduction in carbon. And keep in mind so many of these fertilizers are oil-based, so they incentivize the petroleum industry.”