Persuading customers to apply less harmful, synthetic pesticides to their lawns has proved a greater challenge than Jason Perez expected.
A Riverhead native who founded NitrogenX, an organic lawn care and tick control company, Mr. Perez said business has been slow for the two-year-old company. He’s trying to understand why.
“People don’t realize what a problem there is with pesticide usage,” Mr. Perez, 36, said. “They’ve had pesticides applied to their property for 15 or 20 years, and they’re still alive, so they don’t see any reason to change.”
He offered an analogy: If someone asked you to eat food with known harmful chemicals in it, would you do it? Or would you let your pet play in toxic grass?
While most people would respond no, Mr. Perez said that same logic isn’t always applied to lawn care. His mission through NitrogenX is to get more people on Long Island to switch to an organic lawn care method.
In Suffolk County alone, over 3.8 million pounds of pesticides were purchased by licensed private applicators in 2016, according to Cornell Cooperative Extension. Nassau County added another 1.3 million pounds. Those figures do not include personal purchases from hardware stores.
Robert DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, said that slow-release nitrogen fertilizers are preferred.
“In the case of fertilizers, if you try to green up your grass in 15 minutes, most of that nitrogen is going right by the grass into the water,” he said. “Slow release gives you more nitrogen over time, which is better for your grass.”
A common ingredient found in popular insecticides is permethrin, which is toxic to aquatic organisms, Mr. DeLuca said. On consumer contracts, it says in the Safety Data Sheet required by the company to give to the customer, that it is harmful if inhaled and may cause damage to organs, along with other ailments.
Long Island is unique because even for residents who don’t live near the shore, everyone is still near a water supply that can be tainted because aquifers are underground.
Synthetic nitrogen is water soluble, so non-organic fertilizers are washed through the soil into the water supply very quickly. Organic lawn care uses a slow-release nitrogen method, which is not soluble by water.
Cedar oil is the active ingredient in the tick pesticide Mr. Perez uses. It is considered a safer option, with less impact on the environment. He has an easier time selling the organic tick repellent because it’s equally effective as the non-organic ones and costs about the same. However, organic fertilizer is harder to sell.
“There’s an intangible in play where we don’t reach the mass market,” he said. “We have tons of clicks on our ads, but no calls.”
He argues that his products will encourage grass to grow deeper roots and require less maintenance over time.
“The national companies may sell you up to seven fertilizer applications a year, because after four weeks or so, the lawn is hungry,” Mr. Perez said. “That’s the vicious cycle of the lawn being green, nitrogen leaking out, polluting the environment and then you have to fertilize again.”
Organic products seek to increase the level of nutrients in the soil, which takes a considerable amount of time, especially when treating a property that has been using toxic products for years. It takes two to three months to see the results and possibly a few seasons before permanent results set in, which he recognizes is the hardest part for the customer to understand.
“Clients have it in their mind that they do not want to see a weed in their lawn. A single dandelion has ruined people’s days,” Mr. Perez said. “There is no tolerance for anything but emerald green, weed-free yards.
He combats weeds by creating a very dense, thick grass that makes it difficult for weeds to grow. In the organic landscape, a yard with less than 15 percent weeds is considered a success.
“Something has to give,” he said. “The trade-off between polluting the environment and causing cancer has to at some point outweigh wanting your yard to look like a golf course.”
Photo caption: Jason Perez of Nitrogen X. (Rachel Siford photo)