hen the Turfgrass Council of North Carolina held its annual conference in January, focusing on “Water Quality and Water Supplies in North Carolina,” this special session featured a diverse group of experts from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, along with other state water-quality professionals.
The College’s turfgrass researchers and Cooperative Extension turfgrass specialists were among those on hand when the council, whose members represent an industry worth more than $2 billion a year to the North Carolina economy, sought information about a variety of turfgrass issues. On the agenda were proposed mandatory buffers, forthcoming educational requirements for turfgrass professionals, updates on pest management and general information on how water-quality policy will affect the industry’s livelihood.
“We have always had a solid partnership with N.C. State University and North Carolina Cooperative Extension,” says Gene Maples, executive director of the Turfgrass Council of North Carolina. “Our industry wants to see far more education and far less regulation about many turfgrass issues, and Extension is where we turn.”
To help provide that education, the College’s turfgrass program uses an interdisciplinary approach to many research, academic and extension endeavors. The relationship between turfgrass management and the environment is one example. Genetics researchers in the Crop Science and Soil Science departments are investigating new grass cultivars to develop a more pest-resistant grass. As grasses are improved to be more pest-resistant, the need for pesticides drops. When fewer pesticides are used, fewer are present to enter area bodies of water.
Additionally, Extension specialists within the program develop educational publications that cover everything from “Controlling White Grubs in Turf,” with advice from entomology specialists, to “Disease-like Problems on Turfgrasses in North Carolina,” with input from College plant pathologists.
“It’s like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle,” says Dr. Charles Peacock, professor of Crop Science, an expert in turfgrass management and part of the College’s Turf Work Group.
“We look at every angle of turf to find what works best economically and environmentally for the industry.”or students, the College’s turfgrass program includes curricula with two degree options. The Agricultural Institute offers the two-year associate’s degree in turfgrass management in conjunction with the Crop Science Department. In addition, the Soil Science Department offers the agronomy major in which students pursuing a bachelor’s degree have the option of specializing in turfgrass management. The College also offers several graduate degree options with research related to turfgrass issues.
And in a recent development, the Professional Golfers’ Association accredited a Professional Golf Management Program at N.C. State University. Although this four-and-a-half-year program would be housed in the College of Natural Resources, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ turfgrass component would be vital to its success.
Students entering the College’s turfgrass program can do so with the confidence of knowing that a job awaits them upon graduation. The placement rate is 100 percent. Golf course management, professional lawn care, landscape maintenance and installation, athletic field management and sod production are all among the career choices of turfgrass professionals.
The turfgrass program benefits an industry that reaches beyond the familiar golf course setting. Home lawns, commercial properties, cemeteries, athletics fields, parks, churches and schools all depend on turfgrass professionals. Collectively, turfgrass accounts for nearly 2 million acres of land use in North Carolina. According to Peacock, it is necessary to focus on specific segments of the industry to accurately gauge its environmental impact. Fertilization and pesticide use, loss of sediment and loss of nutrients are the main environmental concerns in managing turfgrass.
“We know there are cases where we have off-site loss; in some projects that is unavoidable, but we want to minimize this loss so as not to create an adverse environmental impact,” says Peacock. His research has helped combat many environmental misconceptions about the turf industry.
“We have often talked about golf courses being a focal point because they are a fixed entity on 150 to 200 acres of land. But we have done three years of work now and have looked at nutrient losses for golf courses, and we just don’t see it happening,” says Peacock. “We don’t see off-site loss at the surface or ground water. The assimilation of the nitrogen put on seems to be accounted for completely within the turf itself. We are no longer concerned about golf courses having a negative environmental impact as far as applied nitrogen.”
Peacock adds that the same is true regarding pesticides. “We just don’t see a large percentage of water samples that are contaminated.”
With the issue of golf course culpability for now put to rest, Peacock and his peers are turning their environmental lens to the lawn care and landscaping portion of the turfgrass industry. He and his colleagues are concerned about off-site loss for landscaping, both home lawn and commercial.
Specifically, Peacock points to recent U.S. Geological Survey studies that indicate increased levels of pesticides in streams that run through major metropolitan areas. “Given what these materials are, researchers feel certain they would have to originate from a landscape situation rather than a farming operation,” Peacock says.
Likewise, Peacock adds, the homeowner angle of the turf situation concerns him. “Homeowners have access to pesticides and fertilizer materials, just like many professionals do. Yet they are untrained.”
According to Peacock, application techniques are important. He stresses the importance of putting fertilizer out in a manner that does not affect the stormwater system, such as avoiding sidewalks and driveways. If some fertilizer does land on these surfaces, Peacock urges people to blow off or sweep the material back onto a landscaped area.
Despite intensive turfgrass research for the last 50 years, Peacock says it is imperative to continue the environmental study of golf courses, commercial properties and the like.
“We still have an incomplete understanding of the nitrogen cycle in different types of turf,” he says. “We understand it better now than we ever have, but we still need to get as much detail on that as we can to make better recommendations on how to change management. That is really foremost in our minds.”