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Fertilizer bill debated in N.J.

By CAROL KINSLEY

Landscapers, lawn care companies and the turf-grass fertilizer industry in New Jersey are in the throes of a debate over a proposed bill that seeks restrictions, certification of professional fertilizer applicators and higher performance standards in applying fertilizers to lawns and turf grass.
State Senator Bob Smith and Assemblyman John McKeon held an informal work session recently in the Statehouse among both environmental advocates who support the initiative and private sector stakeholders who would be directly affected. Rutgers Ag Experiment Station is being considered to play a role in a fee-based fertilizer applicator certification program. Restrictions on the sale of fertilizers to homeowners are also in the proposal.
Dominick Mondi, interim executive director of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association, said the bill also would change the requirements for label information and what happens at the point of sale. It would remove phosphorus from most lawn fertilizer and regulate the percentage of soluble and insoluble nitrogen in the formula. The latter is one of the biggest sticking points, Mondi said.
The industry has "been at the table" for some of the meetings, Mondi said. Another hot button issue regards the dates for application. "Starting after March 1 is okay," he acknowledged, "but ending by Nov. 15, with a caveat for when the grounds is frozen ... In New Jersey the ground is never frozen before Nov. 15, and sometimes not before Dec. 15. Our concern is the date is early. It's not based on good, hard science — not for our temperate zone.... From a business standpoint, it's frustrating. Most companies work through Dec. 1, and this shortens the year more."
The industry supports a compromise date of Dec. 1, Mondi continued. Dec. 15 would have been preferable, but "the other side wanted Oct. 15," he noted. "The case I made to the legislature was that if you're already working only 40 weeks a year, two weeks is 5 percent (of a year's work). "It could affect a lot of small businesses." He emphasized that those businessmen are interested in doing the right thing. Most appreciate the outdoors and are environmentally conscious. "They are not interested in destroying Barnegat Bay, but unfortunately, that's the perception. You're either for or against. I just feel (the bill) needs to be more reasonable."
The industry also questions a cap on how much nitrogen can be applied over the course of a growing season — an item that has been added to the bill only recently. The limit is 4.25 pounds of nitrogen in a year for (1,000 square feet of) turf. While the cap would be acceptable, some want a per-application maximum of 0.75 pounds, and, "the major issue, they further want to require that 30 percent of that be slow-release or water-soluble N. There is concern that will basically eliminate many products from the market and take away flexibility from professionals. There's a time to use slow release and a time not to. That's the feeling. It doesn't necessarily achieve anything. Some of the voices we've heard say it's the total nitrogen, not whether it's soluble or insoluble (that would be a problem.) If it's too much, it's too much," Mondi said.
“We are 100 percent in favor of some sort of legislation that controls fertilizer and helps water quality. It just should be well thought-out and based on good science, not other states' (regulations) and not completely handcuff the industry."
While New Jersey Farm Bureau opposes any applicator licensing program by the Department of Environmental Protection, the industry is not opposed to the idea of certification, Mondi said, "if it's reasonable, not cost-prohibitive and easy for businesses to work with."
Ed Wengryn, NJFB field representative, explained Farm Bureau has no problem with an education and certification program, particularly if it is voluntary or designed to improve customer service, but if there are additional licenses and fees on businesses, "we do have a problem," he said. "DEP has already said without major funding, it cannot do the program. If they charge $150 for a license, we cannot find that acceptable. If it is voluntary, as a marketing tool, we are okay with that."
As for the restriction against application in winter, Wengryn said, "They're talking Nov. 15 to March 1. That's a judgement call. The state university does not recommend fertilization that late. People shouldn't be applying in the winter anyway." He conceded, however, that landscape companies are busy in the fall removing leaves. "They want to remove leaves, then feed, not feed and then rake up the fertilizer with the leaves. Sometimes it's impractical to fertilize in November." He noted that typically the ground freezes in mid-December to early January.
"We understand the goals of nutrient control, and homeowners need this education," Wengryn continued. "They need to be applying in a sensible manner. That would address a lot of water quality concerns. The bill seems to be moving in that direction."
A Joint Senate and Assembly Environmental Committee Hearing will be held Thursday, Aug. 12 from 9 a.m. to noon at Toms River Town Hall, 133 Washington Street. Interested parties are being urged to attend.