Hey, Let’s Start a Business During a Pandemic!

Meg Smolinski performing a tree assessment. Photos courtesy of the author.

Imagine starting a business in March 2020. It’s about the worst timing for which one could have begun such an endeavor, but Maryland Sustainable Ecologies has successfully pivoted to an online platform and is slowly growing.

The idea behind Maryland Sustainable Ecologies was simple; with a combined total of 25 years of experience in the field, I decided to launch an arborist consulting company with friend and colleague Richard Jones. We realized that, while larger cities like Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, had resources to dedicate to not only having a city arborist crew but also to managing an inventory and providing training, many of the smaller municipalities in our area of Maryland do not. Instead of the urban forester, the task of inspections and risk mitigation may fall on someone in code enforcement or the GIS (Geographic Information System) office. Community members can get very passionate about the hows and whys of tree care, and having enough training can be critical from an outreach perspective. That’s where we come in.

We had planned on offering in-person, hands-on training to city employees, training like chain-saw safety and how to recognize hazard trees in their communities, offering public works departments the opportunity not only to complete their required safety measures, but also to provide further skills and knowledge for their staff. Because we also have extensive experience in planning public-education programs, we had started talking to different nonprofit associations in our area about offering tree-identification walks and tours, starting with one on the National Mall.

Meg Smolinski and her baby girl, “Beans,” during an Arb Walk on the U-Maryland campus last year. Click here to read more.

We wanted to support the employees tasked with caring for the trees by offering more training to those who needed it. We also wanted to educate homeowners and others in the community to help inform them of what to look for in hazard trees and how to properly care for their own trees or trees within the community.

We had exactly one in-person training before Maryland shut down due to COVID safety concerns. While that training was successful and we hope to do more in-person events once it is safe to do so, we now have had to pivot to online trainings via Zoom and also pitch to clients who may have had drastic budget cuts. Where there had been initial interest with potential clients, we were then told they had to wait and see what would happen with the pandemic.

It took us a few months to gather ourselves, to regroup and rethink. Richard spent countless hours putting in the up-front time investment of creating PowerPoint presentations of his material and adapting to a virtual format, which is so different and often more difficult than teaching people face to face. I immersed myself in becoming a Zoom expert to troubleshoot any technical difficulties we might have and learn how to best broadcast our sessions. Anyone who has been involved in one of these meetings knows it’s very easy for it to go off the rails with technical issues. Things have to run seamlessly, or the attention span of someone sitting in their home listening to the talk can easily disappear. No matter how much experience or knowledge in trees you may have, the temptation to write off a presenter as “They don’t know what they’re doing” if tech issues arise is always there.

Now that cities, gardening groups and other organizations in our area have a better sense of the financial impact of COVID-19, we are able to have more concrete conversations with clients about what we can offer and what they can (or can’t!) afford. We are finding towns that are serious about sustainability, and therefore serious about the health of their tree canopies, and are interested in providing education programs for their citizens. One city arborist can’t take care of an entire town’s tree canopy, so educating the residents of the city in proper tree maintenance, how to properly plant a tree and how to recognize tree problems is a good investment. Giving community members a better sense of the complexity of tree care and the innumerable pressures on our urban trees can help foster understanding as well, and makes people allies instead of critical enemies of the city-arborist staff.

Moreover, homeowners are more and more interested in learning how to care for their landscapes and improve upon them. This seems to be due to a combination of people becoming more aware of the sustainability and monetary benefits of trees and proper tree care, quarantine and stay-at-home orders that mean more time at home to see problems and envision solutions and a need to relieve stress through spending time outdoors and working on projects.

According to the January 15, 2021, Landscape and Nursery Integrated Pest Management Report from the University of Maryland Extension, in our area of Maryland at least, a strong market is predicted for 2021 in the horticulture industry. Landscape companies are booked for the spring, some into the fall, and garden centers in Maryland have reported that customers are already asking in January about spring plants. We hope this trend continues, and we hope to offer some guidance to those whose interest has been piqued. As many of us know firsthand, our industry has been incredibly busy, even before the pandemic hit the U.S.

Also, thanks to the challenges that face us from global warming, we have had problems with oaks suffering quite a lot, which homeowners have noticed with a due amount of concern. Due to existing root issues from compaction in our urban, construction-laden soils, as well as construction damage itself and periods of flooding and drought stress over the past three years, oaks in the area were predisposed to infestations of ambrosia beetle. This was resulting in, what seemed to the public at least, a sudden and massive die-off of the trees in their yards and streets. This resulted in quite a lot of stress for homeowners and community members. Local extension services began to receive a huge influx in requests to figure out what was the cause, so many that the University of Maryland Extension began to send out notifications to municipalities in an attempt to get ahead of things. While it might not have saved some of the oaks, simply telling homeowners they should be inspecting their trees at least annually, if not seasonally, can help stop these problems before they start. Many people simply have no idea they should be doing this.

Many of our local communities are Tree City USA communities, and they pay attention when things like this happen. Many want to know more, many want to know what can be done and many hope (sometimes, unfortunately, in vain) that their trees can be saved. By offering classes, hopefully problems can be identified sooner. Things are blooming in our recent extremely mild winters, insects aren’t dying off in the cold and diseases are still active, even though it’s winter.

Repeat business for us depends not only on providing a user-friendly experience to the people we are training, but also on maintaining positive relationships with the municipalities themselves. We have to be careful not to throw any public-works employees or city-council members under the bus if we want to be invited back again (or even better, get asked to assist with drafting tree ordinances and outreach programs). Avoiding situations where a private citizen might have an axe to grind with their town is critical, and you may not know the exact situation you are walking into.

We strive to communicate the message that we are all on the same side. Whether you’ve chosen this field of work or whether you’ve signed up for an online class, you are saying you care about trees. Having an understanding of the community you are speaking to and how passionate they are about trees, and how they perceive their public-works department, is important.

While the challenges we face during the pandemic are far from over, we have learned some valuable lessons. The first is that utilizing a broad range of experience is necessary, and not just tree experience. We wouldn’t still be going if we weren’t able to get up to speed quickly on using technology, thinking critically regarding marketing avenues, putting in the up-front investment of time in creating online content and being able to communicate effectively both with tree professionals in the industry as well as individuals with no tree experience.

As we move forward, we hope to create specific relationships with municipalities to supplement whatever they are doing to care for their trees, whether that is citizen education, creating a certificate program for volunteer community tree stewards, offering best practices for tree-inventory work or providing masked, outdoor and distanced hands-on safety training.

With the flexibility we’ve had to learn from these unique times, we feel we can hit the ground running in the future, when we come out of the pandemic. The demand for this sort of service still exists, or has even increased, as we all spend more time looking around our homes and local areas.

Meg Smolinski, an ISA Certified Arborist, is a graduate of the University of Maryland’s Institute of Applied Agriculture program and outreach coordinator for UMD’s Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in College Park, Maryland.

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