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Beeting lawns into shape

Oakdale, Minn. — Greener Pastures, which makes more than a dozen grain-based fertilizers and turf products, has developed natural weed-killers using sugar beet molasses. Nature’s Weed Control, Nature’s PreEmergent and Nature’s Weed & Feed curb most annual and perennial weeds without chemical herbicides, says Mark Miles, Greener Pastures founder and president.

The newest products are a blend of soy, humic acid, iron and beet molasses. Molasses, a byproduct of sugar processing, contains a natural weed-killing protein, says Miles, an inventor who has built a million-dollar lawn care service around his original fertilizers.

Beet your weedies

Initial test results suggest Greener Pastures’ beet herbicide discourages weed growth “with an organic compound that’s essentially harmless for animals and humans,” says AURI chemist Jerry Crawford, who has been working with the company for several years. “You can see the vast potential if the research they’re doing now validates the claims.”

Tests at the University of Missouri Turfgrass Research Center showed that Nature’s PreEmergent kills about 70 percent of pre-emergent crabgrass, matching the performance of a major national brand, Miles says.

Nature’s Weed & Feed kills about 60 percent of emerged broadleaf weeds, Miles says. And Greener Pastures produced greater turf root growth than a major competitor.

Additional plot tests are underway at the University of Louisiana, and more trials are scheduled to begin this summer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Guelph, Ontario.

An inventor’s bio

The evolution of Greener Pastures’ natural weed whacker began when an inventive spirit met a vexing mystery. Miles, 41, grew up in Grant County in west central Minnesota, where both his father and uncle were well-known farm-shop inventors. Miles followed their footsteps. After college, he raised grain, sugar beets and hogs on the family farm; in his spare time, he tinkered with inventions. But the 1985 farm crisis forced him out of agriculture.

Miles moved his family to Pompano Beach, Fla. and started a small business resurfacing boat decks with a saltwater-resistant coating he had devised. It went well, Miles says. But his family didn’t like south Florida’s crime rates, so they returned to Minnesota a year and a half later.

How does your grass grow?

In Florida, Miles experimented with organic fertilizers, “playing around with my own lawn.” His concoctions, made from animal feeds, produced dark green grass and rapid growth. He approached some Florida lawn contractors with his results, but got the brush-off. Still, he was convinced natural turf products would find a ready market. Back in Minnesota, he decided to test his hunch.

In the spring of 1986, he rented a booth at the St. Paul Home and Garden Show, advertising an organic lawn care service. “I didn’t have any money for brochures,” Miles says, so when people approached, “I just started talking. I said I wouldn’t use any chemicals on their lawns, only natural fertilizer made from agricultural crops.”

By the time the three-day show was over, “I had signed up 300 customers.” Fifteen years later, Greener Pastures sprays more than 3,000 Twin Cities residential lawns each season, plus local schools, parks and athletic fields.

Mysterious weed kills

That first season, Miles applied a dry lawn fertilizer made from soybeans. Later, he devised a liquid fertilizer incorporating sugar cane molasses. The following season, he switched to locally-produced sugar beet molasses, “which was basically free for the trucking cost,” he says.

But something unexpected happened when Miles used the new beet-molasses fertilizer. “We’d spray the lawns and a few weeks later the weeds would die,” Miles says. “My customers got upset, because they thought I was spraying chemicals.”

Miles was stumped. Afraid to lose business, he shelved the beet formula and went back to dry fertilizer. When he tried the beet liquid again a few seasons later, the same thing happened. So in 1996, Miles came to AURI’s Marshall office for help unraveling the mystery.

AURI arranged for analysis at the University of Minnesota. Scientists there confirmed that a weed’s cell structure degrades when treated with the sugar beet-based product. AURI then helped Greener Pastures improve the formula and manufacturing process.

Response builds market turf

For the past two seasons, Greener Pastures has offered Nature’s Weed Control products to its lawn care customers in the Twin Cities. The response has been terrific, says Stephen Chesla, Greener Pastures’ executive vice-president. The new line helped the company double revenues since 1999 to $1.2 million last year, he says.

Greener Pastures’ customers want lawn products that are safe for their families and the environment, Chesla says. “Because Greener Pastures is all feed grade, you don’t have to worry about your children, or your cat or dog, walking on the grass after it’s been sprayed.” Unlike most other organic fertilizers, Greener Pastures’ products contain no composted manure or animal carcasses. They increase organic matter in the soil and are phosphorus free, which helps protect lakes from algae blooms.

Greener Pastures hopes its new weed killer will fuel strong sales growth, says Chesla, 51, a former executive with Roper Corporation and Textron. The company is pitching the products primarily to commercial lawn care companies — a $14 billion industry — and recently landed a deal with NutriLawn, a Canadian franchise spraying 60,000 lawns a season.

Bringing Greener Pastures to this point has been a struggle, says Miles, who has several other products in the works, including a microbial treatment for pond algae. “Financing product development has been the most difficult. I borrowed from family, friends, vendors who believed in what I was doing.”

But it’s been satisfying, too, he says. “I was raised on a farm, and I derive great personal value out of making things grow.”