Ontario Turf Grass Symposium – Golf industry facing challenges and changes, turf gathering hears

November 25th, 2011- Mark it on your calenders, it’s the date the University of Guelph’s Turfgrass Management students hosted their annual symposium.

Rob O'Flanagan, Mercury staff

Nov 26, 2011

GUELPH — The term “integrated pest management” was buzzing around a turf grass symposium Friday like mosquitoes in a swampy area of a golf course.

But golf course superintendents — the people in the know about all things turf-related — appear relatively unperturbed by new regulations surrounding pesticide use in their industry. Most have already implemented the new measures, and are starting to talk about integrated plant health, a more holistic approach to long-term course maintenance and pest control.

Turf grass industry insiders, including golf course operators, scientists and businesspeople, met Friday morning at the Cutten Fields in Guelph for the 2011 Turfgrass Symposium. Well over 100 were in attendance.

Despite the ominous subheading “Agronomy vs. Economy: Saving your greens in times of darkness,” the event was far from bleak.

Part of the morning session considered Ontario’s sluggish economy and its impact on the golf industry.

John Bladon, agronomist and president of The Chimera Group, said in a presentation that the business of golf may be facing challenging economic times, but it remains a good business to be in.

Thoroughly understanding the costs that go into course maintenance and how to control them is crucial to a healthy bottom line, he said.

“A golf course is like any other business, when you strip it all away,” Bladon said. “It is a leisure commodity to be sold.” And like any other business in tough times, it is essential to run it as cost-efficiently as possible.

Bladon said too many of today’s golf courses are wasting money on things like the construction and maintenance of sand bunkers. When you break down the numbers, the average golfer makes 37 putts on the greens during a round, but only three shots out of the bunker.

“Bunkers are bankrupting the game,” he said, adding that he sees no financially viable reason why bunkers are so popular, given their minimal importance to the game itself.

Many decorative horticultural components of courses, he added, are overdone and costly, as are certain contemporary mowing methods and equipment. The old-style straight up, straight down mowing method may be more cost-effective and just as good for the sport.

Integrated pest management is a program introduced across Canada a few years ago to ensure environmental sustainability and the reduction of inputs including water, fertilizer and pesticides. All golf courses in Ontario are required to become IPM-accredited if they want to continue using so-called Class 9 pesticides.

Ontario’s cosmetic pesticide ban did not extend to golf courses, but courses must comply with new, stricter guidelines under IPM in order to maintain that exemption, and can only use such pesticides on playing surfaces. IPM also involves the use of certain best practices, as well as mechanical and biological ways to control pests.

During a panel discussion, turf grass expert Katerina Jordan, a University of Guelph plant agriculture professor, said these are difficult times for the golf industry because pressures related to environmental sustainability and economic viability are hitting it all at once. Often it is difficult to balance the two while still keeping golfers happy.

Healthy, consistent turf throughout a course costs money to achieve and maintain, she and others said, but Marc Brooks, master superintendent of Stone Tree Golf and Fitness Club in Owen Sound, said he has incorporated a number of practices that improve plant health and keep costs down.

Alternating between cutting and rolling grass helps keep certain costs down, and also serves to control some surface-feeding pests, such as leather jackets and black cutworms, by essentially squashing them to death.

Weeds are a sign that something is wrong with soil, irrigation, fertility or other factors, Jordan said. Diagnosing those conditions and remedying them in advance of weed proliferation saves on costs later on.