Business Of PHC, Part 3: How to Equip Your Business Without Breaking the Bank

“About a year into it, I felt confident enough to do this (PHC) and to purchase more equipment. The PHC truck doesn’t go out every day, but it does go out every week. And a big part of our strategic plan is to grow our PHC department,” says Joseph Eves. Photo courtesy of Coastal Tree Care.

If you’re thinking of taking the leap into plant health care (PHC), this acronym seems appropriate: KISS – Keep It Simple, Silly (“Stupid” doesn’t seem fitting here). It can seem daunting when it comes down to what equipment and materials you’ll need to purchase in order to launch your new PHC program, but if you bite off just a small chunk to begin with, you may find you don’t have to break the bank to get started.

Most arborists we interviewed for this article agree that it’s best to ease into equipment acquisition when starting up your company’s new PHC section. “I think if you’re going to get into PHC with a fairly low investment, you could start with a motorized or even an electric backpack sprayer,” says Phil Perron, plant health care director for Barrett Tree Service East, Inc., an accredited, 14-year TCIA member company based in Medford, Massachusetts. “These sprayers really have come a long way – some can shoot up to 30 feet. There are days when I don’t feel like dragging out a 400-foot hose behind me, so I’ll just use a backpack sprayer.”

“I think if you’re going to get into PHC with a fairly low investment, you could start with a motorized or even an electric backpack sprayer,” says Phil Perron of Barrett Tree Service East, Inc., of Medford, Massachusetts. Photo courtesy of Bob Houser.

For true simplicity when breaking into PHC, Perron likes the N-Jekt system for soil-injection treatments. It comes with a one-gallon tank and a 6-inch injector spike, and can be used for applying fertilizers, growth regulators and insecticides. “It could even fit in the back of a car, so you really wouldn’t need a special vehicle,” he notes.

“You also can do a fair amount of PHC work with a 50- or 100-gallon tank, mixing on site with the client’s water source,” Perron says. “You can keep things as simple as a pickup truck with multiple tanks, doing soil applications. But if you were going to start really small, you’d probably want to get into systemics, especially using a backpack sprayer. We use things like Reliant, a systemic fungicide applied with a backpack as a bark spray primarily to beech trees in our area, for Phytophthora.

“Other products are injected directly into the tree with very little water needed, like TreeAzin, which is a stem-injected product used for emerald ash borer (EAB),” he adds. “Other systemics are Transtect, Xytect and Lepitect. You could use any of these without a big truck or a ton of water. I can send one technician out in a logoed electric car to do these jobs. It’s a good look. Just make sure to logo your vehicle large enough that people in the neighborhood can read it. And the uniforms are important, too.”

Above all, Perron notes that even these basic services can be game changers for your business. “There’s a very high profit margin on all these treatments, especially systemics,” he says. “And I think you’re going to know real quickly what the demand is (for these services). After that first season, I think you’re going to see a pretty quick ramp-up needed in terms of people, equipment and other services.”

“There’s a very high profit margin on all these treatments, especially systemics,” says Phil Perron. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements.

After your first season or two offering PHC, Perron would suggest investing in that bigger truck. “I’d recommend a split tank for micro-mixing. The trucks we have now have five separate tanks, from 25 gallons to 400 or 500 gallons, so we’re prepared for applying different products for different clients without having to go back to the yard. This is especially important with IPM (integrated pest management). You’re going to want to be able to mix product specific to the pest you’re managing.

“It may sound cliché, but that $130,000 truck you buy eventually will pay for itself,” he adds.

Janet Doss, PHC manager for accredited Wachtel Tree Science, Inc., a 30-year member company in Merton, Wisconsin, suggests going big from the get-go. “Get the biggest pump and engine you can afford,” she says. “If you’re trying to just get by, you’ll just get by. But if PHC is something you’re serious about, get the best you can afford. It’s an investment for decades.

“We have pumps and engines that are more than 20 years old,” she notes. “We take care of them. Ours are inside all winter, and heated. So it is worth the money up front when you take good care of the equipment.”

Business of PHC Series at a Glance

This is the third article in a planned 12-part series called Business of PHC that will run in TCI over the next year, focusing on what a smaller company needs to know to launch a plant-health-care program and start offering PHC services. The various aspects of this lucrative profit center that we have covered or plan to cover include:

  1. PHC – It Could Be the Shot in the Arm Your Company Needs” [TCI, April 2021]
  2. Elements of a Plant-Health-Care Business Plan” [TCI, May 2021]
  3. “How to Equip Your Business Without Breaking the Bank”
  4. What people will you need? [Scheduled for July]
  5. The science: Host species and the things that affect them. Get to know the trees in your area and their problems. Understand treatment selection. [Scheduled for August]
  6. Diagnosing pest/abiotic problems [Scheduled for September]
  7. Simple soil science/use of soil amendments [Scheduled for October]
  8. Structural pruning [Scheduled for November]
  9. Licensing and regulatory requirements [Scheduled for December]
  10. Marketing/selling PHC contracts [Scheduled for January 2022]
  11.  Scheduling/fulfilling PHC contracts [Scheduled for February 2022]
  12. PHC resources – TCIA PHC Technician, soil-testing labs, pest-diagnostic services, etc. [Scheduled for March 2022]

But if you still want to start out small, Doss suggests doing soil applications, trunk injections and even root excavation. “You don’t need an expensive air-spade and knife, you can still do excavations by hand,” she says. “Just get down on your hands and knees and get a look at what’s down there. All it takes is a trowel and shovel to find root flare.”

According to Doss, some people are hesitant to work in plant health care. “When there is training and a focus on safety, people are better educated about what they are doing and can see that plant health care is a way to offer diversity in the work that can be done throughout the year. Understanding PHC makes you a complete arborist,” she says.

Kevin Hamm, owner of Hamm’s ArborCare, Inc., an accredited, 22-year TCIA member company out of Pardeeville, Wisc., agrees with others that the best approach to PHC is starting out simply. “Start with something like soil injections and a backpack sprayer,” he says. “But even before that, get with the local government to make sure you have the correct applicator license. In Wisconsin, you have to have both the individual and the company license – even if you’re just selling PHC. And attend every plant-disease diagnostic clinic you can.”

He adds, “If you’re not doing EAB treatments, you’re already behind the eight ball. They utilize a fairly small hole and can be easy to break into. And there are small hoses available that could be carried around in a fairly small vehicle. In fact, you could buy the parts and fabricate the vehicle yourself.”

According to Hamm, his company currently carries an 800-gallon spray rig on a large truck. “We’re in the process of breaking up our large spray unit into smaller units on multiple trucks,” he explains. “You know, divide and conquer. It’s part of our focus on expanding PHC.”

Seek out PHC support

According to Joseph Eves, owner of TCIA-accredited Coastal Tree Care in San Diego, California, it wasn’t until his company became a TCIA member five years ago that he’d even heard of plant health care. “I went out to visit Josh Morin when he was with Taddiken (in Boulder, Colorado), and he really opened my eyes to the fact that there was a need for this unique, premium service,” says Eves. “It’s about learning something new, learning the actual science of tree care.

About a year into its PHC program, Coastal Tree Care purchased a used flatbed, cab-over truck for $18,500 and a skid-mount spray system for $8,200. Photo courtesy of Coastal Tree Care.

“What jump-started our plant-health-care program was this PHC peer group of six or seven of us from TCIA that had Zoom meetings once a month, and we had accountability partners. Without the support of that group, I wouldn’t have known what equipment to purchase or how to even start,” he notes.

“We started real basic,” Eves says. “I’d say start by finding out what is the worst pest in your area, what is causing the most harm. For us, that’s the South American palm weevil, which is found only in Southern California – it’s decimating our date-palm population. Then begin with soil applications and a trunk-injection kit, plus a backpack sprayer.

“It really is possible to start that small, and you only need one crew member for PHC. This is where PHC is very profitable, not like regular tree work where you have to send out a three- or four-person crew. PHC has increased our business by $300,000 in two years.”

Eves gives a lot of credit for the success of his PHC program to Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, a 23-year TCIA corporate member company based in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “My rep, Brian Bruce, has helped me find the right products and even helped me structure my pricing and programs,” he says. “I would encourage anyone starting out to reach out to Rainbow. They really followed up with us, making sure we had the products and training we needed. Of course, they’re salespeople who want to sell you their products, but they go above and beyond that.”

Eventually, Eves says, he knew it was time to expand his PHC operations. “About a year into it, I felt confident enough to do this (PHC) and to purchase more equipment. In early 2019, we purchased a used flatbed, cab-over truck for $18,500 and a skid-mount spray system for $8,200. The PHC truck doesn’t go out every day, but it does go out every week. And a big part of our strategic plan is to grow our PHC department.”

As regional technical director for Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, Patrick Anderson dovetails off of Eves’ comments with his own perspective. “At Rainbow, we try to be more than just a vendor,” he says. “We want to make sure our clients succeed in what they do, and training is a big part of that. We want to make sure they’re using the correct application method and the right product, and are using ecologically responsible application methods.

A PHC technician makes an application using a calibrated soil-injection device. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements.

“If you’re just starting out, the first thing we recommend is becoming familiar with the most common plant species in your area,” he continues. “A certain percentage of those trees and shrubs are going to have problems with pests and disease, so start with those problems. Identify three to five services you could offer to deal with those things, and they don’t just have to be pest management, they could be fertilization and soils. Don’t overextend yourself. Instead, build confidence in the few services you’re offering. And then be sure you have one person assigned to tracking your metrics.

“You’re not trying to solve the world’s problems your first year in PHC,” Anderson notes. “But you do want to become confident in those three to five services. And you need to keep plant health care front and center with your sales staff. Don’t let it get sidelined. That’s where we see new PHC programs go wrong. Your sales staff is used to selling pruning, they’re not always thinking plant health care. So, make sure it’s at the forefront of your weekly sales meeting.”

When it comes to equipment, Anderson says your first purchases will depend entirely on your budget. “Maybe your first service is going to be some sort of fertilization or soil management. You could use anything from a spreader with granular product to a spray unit with a 100-gallon tank. You could get a decent spreader for $50, or a skid-mounted sprayer on average might run about $2,000 to $5,000.

“Then you could add another service for common pests like emerald ash borer – the poster child of pests – or another common pest disease like scale. You could even do soil drenches with a $5 bucket from Home Depot!” he says, laughing. “The next level up would be calibrated soil-injection devices or an entry-level trunk-injection kit, and these can run anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000.”

Anderson explains that Rainbow’s Scientific Advancements section sells both other manufacturers’ PHC products and equipment as well as its own proprietary brands, such as the Q Gun and Q Connect tree-injection systems that cost between $400 and $1,500. “Rainbow’s philosophy is the toolbox approach to PHC,” he says. “Not every situation warrants the same tool. We really pride ourselves on having more than just a hammer in our toolbox. When we meet someone just starting out, we try to get a sense of who they are and what they need. We’re both a manufacturer and a distributor, and we distribute other’s products that fit into that toolbox.

“We’d rather have you purchase other manufacturers’ products that will work better for you than to only buy our (brand) products,” Anderson concludes.

It takes a team

“Large company or small, PHC is a team effort, and it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Jon Welch, president of Crawford Tree & Landscape, an accredited, 43-year member company based in Milwaukee, Wisc. “The expectation that there may be ‘a’ singular approach is, in my opinion, the greatest limiting factor we face in growing PHC services and providers in our tree care industry.

“More than buying application equipment and product, (starting a PHC program) requires everyone at your company to be united, to be open to the investment regarding the knowledge required, equipment maintenance and the time it will take to fully institute,” Welch continues. “Please be patient. Sales, operations, your mechanic, your production arborists, those responsible for invoicing all have to be willing to make this investment with you. If the team’s outlook is not positive in nature, if not fully supported, the likelihood of a PHC program developing with any real staying power is minimal.”

Welch agrees with Joseph Eves’ point of finding people in the industry who will help you launch your program. “Find product vendors who don’t simply sell, but consult as well. Welcome their expertise and utilize their resources. This partnership is invaluable, as it sets you up not just to buy product, but to receive education in its use, the equipment required and the best practices surrounding application. It’s in their best interest to see you succeed, right? When you sell, they sell!

“Next, it’s time to invest in equipment,” Welch continues. “Start by setting an initial budget, then initiate a relationship with an established PHC provider outside of your service area. Lay out your two-year vision for them and your budget, and then trust their council on startup and staying the course.”

According to Welch, it’s at this point that you’re ready to move from talking and planning to doing. “Buy or finance the equipment specifically suited to the services you’ll provide these first two years. Stay in budget, define in writing your PHC services, create a pricing structure for your sales arborists to follow and set up a way to train your team so these new service offerings stay top of mind in all they do. As an aside, our minds always go right to ‘spray rigs,’ right? However, offering trunk injections, soil drenches and even soil injections may be the best way for you to methodically step into the PHC arena.”

Following that, Welch offers up ideas for expanding your equipment purchases once you’ve successfully become established in PHC. “Macro injections and air-spade excavation services, which typically require a deeper PHC commitment, could be great additions,” he says. “It all depends on what you started with and how far you’ve come.”

As an aside, Welch mentions that in the early days of PHC at Crawford Tree & Landscape, the company used “large metal tanks, old John Bean pumps and a cauldron of chemicals – but we had a founder (Perry Crawford III) dedicated to education and staying current. Today, our PHC division is led by Joseph Crawford and supported by mechanic Paul Bertoni.”

Welch explains that Bertoni helped build the company’s PHC van that was featured in the April 2020 issue of TCI Magazine, in the article “Custom-Built PHC Vehicle – Van-tastic!” by David Rattigan. “Our Plant health Monitoring and Treatment (PMT) program is second to none, and to execute such an innovative program competitively, we needed affordable and innovative equipment like this van, which now is being replicated in other parts of the country, with our assistance,” he notes.

When it comes time to equip your startup PHC program, there are two things the experts seem to agree on: don’t bite off more than you can chew, and seek out the advice of others who have been there and done that. Then prepare to be successful in your new venture!

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