It’s not uncommon to feel confident in your ability to dismantle a dead tree with heavy equipment and complicated rigging, but at the same time to feel insecure about your ability to diagnose and nurse a sick tree back to health with chemical-based treatments. For the arborist considering adding plant health care (PHC) to their service offerings, making the jump to pesticides, including restricted-use pesticides (RUPs), can be daunting due to the tight regulations around these chemicals. RUPs are more volatile than other pesticides on the market, and thus can cause more damage to trees, the environment and the people who come into contact with them.
Because each state has different requirements for licensure, pesticide storage and recordkeeping standards, this article takes a broad look at the regulations as opposed to drilling down on specific requirements. Just as you can, we went to sources at the companies that make pesticide- and disease-control products for the tree care industry. Here is a simple, five-step plan to get your PHC business up and running and keep it above-board with the authorities.
Keep it simple
If you’ve not used pesticides at all, consider touching base with your state’s department of agriculture or natural resources or a university/college extension program, in order to start getting educated.
“When a new, prospective customer comes to us expressing interest in adding pest management to their services, sometimes they ask us how and where to get started,” says Lisa McCoy, national sales manager for Mauget Company, a 50-year TCIA corporate member company located in Arcadia, California. “Nearly every state has an IPM website to keep professionals and the public up to date on invasive species and other things happening to trees in the area. This is an excellent place to start if you’re not sure which pests or disease you may be treating.”
To have a successful PHC program, you do not need to treat every single pest, fungus or disease in your service area. The general consensus from those sources spoken with for this article is to start small. By and large, everyone interviewed indicates that simplicity is the number-one trick to launching a PHC program.
“You might consider the difference between spraying smaller trees versus injecting larger and taller trees,” suggests Chip Doolittle, president of ArborSystems, Inc., a 25-year TCIA corporate member company based in Omaha, Nebraska. “Also consider the financial investment for activities such as fertilizing plants with a portable soil injector that you can fill up at the job site, rather than filling up a tanker at headquarters to spray a larger area.”
Business of PHC Series at a Glance
This is the ninth 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:
- PHC – It Could Be the Shot in the Arm Your Company Needs [TCI, April 2021]
- Elements of a Plant-Health-Care Business Plan [TCI, May 2021]
- How to Equip Your Business Without Breaking the Bank [TCI, June 2021]
- What people will you need? [TCI, July 2021]
- The science: Host species and the things that affect them. Get to know the trees in your area and their problems. Understand treatment selection. [TCI, August 2021]
- Diagnosing pest/abiotic problems [TCI, September]
- Simple soil science/use of soil amendments [TCI, October]
- Structural pruning [TCI, November]
- Licensing and regulatory requirements
- Marketing/selling PHC contracts [Scheduled for January 2022]
- Scheduling/fulfilling PHC contracts [Scheduled for February 2022]
- PHC resources – TCIA PHC Technician, soil-testing labs, pest-diagnostic services, etc. [Scheduled for March 2022]
In short, ask yourself what you can add to your service offerings without making a large initial investment.
“We’ve seen plenty of companies start with very little; just an operator in a pickup doing tree work, adding team members as the business grew, and now they have full PHC programs. It’s doable,” says Patrick Anderson, arborologist for Rainbow Ecoscience, a 23-year TCIA corporate member based in Minnetonka, Minnesota. “When launching an IPM program for your business, we suggest selecting a handful of protocols to start with and buying the products and equipment best suited to those treatments.” The key, he says, is to pick protocols you know are common to your service area and that you are confident you can get results from.
“We always tell people starting out to identify the top five plant species in your area, which are often tied to some plant-damaging pest. Instead of training an arborist how to identify insects, just know your plant species and go from there,” says Anderson.
When proposing pest, disease or remediation treatments to clients, it’s important to avoid using highly technical terms. “There’s no question you’ll do better selling a new PHC service to clients when you speak to them on their level,” says Rob Gorden, director of urban forestry and business development for Arborjet, Inc., an 18-year TCIA corporate member based in Woburn, Massachusetts. “It’s also important that we listen to our customers before sharing our solutions. Take a systemic approach, asking the right questions to get the answers you need in order to write a prescription for their trees.”
Getting your pesticide applicator’s license is the first step to ensuring the success of your PHC business, and you’ll want to do this before selling pest-management services to your clients. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Federal law requires any person who applies or supervises the use of restricted-use pesticide to be certified in accordance with EPA regulations and state, territorial and tribal laws.”
You must get licensed in each U.S. state and territory where you make RUP applications. However, it’s worth noting that most states require every commercial applicator to get certified, regardless of whether or not RUPs are used. “Each state has its own approach. It can feel daunting, but it’s actually quite manageable,” says Anne Hayes, a regulatory affairs manager for Lallemand Plant Care (previously known as BioForest), based in Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Canada, with customers in the United States. “State websites are great starting points for finding out what somebody has to do to get licensed and what resources are available to help with preparing for licensing exams.”
A simple Google search for “how to get certified as a pesticide applicator” will bring you to an EPA.gov landing page dedicated to pesticide-worker safety, with links to resources for U.S. state/territory websites, as well as information regarding RUP application in Indian country, a term for lands occupied and operated by Native Americans. Nearly every state has a pesticide-safety education program in place for certification.
The certification process will clarify many of the questions you might have about pesticide application. “In general, most states have two levels of testing,” says Gorden. “The core exam for certified operators is the first step in licensure and is nearly the same everywhere in the country, although not necessarily identical.” Studying for this exam presents the basics of understanding pesticide safety, calculating and measuring product use, how to read the label and more. “This licensure is necessary before you can work on a client’s property,” states Gorden. Note that the name for this core license varies from state to state, and can be qualified operator, qualified applicator or something similar.
The second level of testing covers specialized categories such as mosquito control, weed control in farmlands, turf, trees and shrubs, structural pest control and more. If you want to take advanced exams to become a qualified supervisor, you only need to take those you wish to focus on. “These are more technical, identifying these people as having a higher standing according to the law, and, in most states, are necessary in order to use restricted-use products” says Gorden. “If you’re going to have a team of applicators, obtaining this second level of certification also enables you to oversee other certified operators who took the core exam.”
Keeping your IPM program simple at the beginning makes it easier to go after just one or two of those specialized exams to become a qualified supervisor. “As you specialize more and move up the pyramid of pest management, there will be fewer people in the field. This means less competition, and you can charge rates that reflect your expertise,” says Doolittle.
Starting small builds a foundation for sustainable growth, and getting licensed is a necessary step for offering PHC services to your clients.
The label is law
For new applicators, questions about labels come up frequently. The most important thing to understand is that the label is the law, and everything you need to know about how to use the product is on that label. Many pesticide manufacturers provide the labels and safety data sheets (SDS) on their websites for easy, 24/7 access, and some also are offered in Spanish to support the growing workforce of those with Spanish as their first language.
Products, whether RUP or not, go through a challenging, one- to two-year review process with the EPA. Once approved at the federal level, products then go to the state level for approval for use. “It’s really important to understand the labels and the risks to the environment,” says Gorden. “The label is going to be your most important reference for safe use, application guidance, pests treated, locations for use and plant species allowed, and includes details about proper PPE for the applicator when necessary.”
McCoy echoes Gorden. “The labels are very black and white. Most pesticide use is based on the region of the country you work in, and some pesticides can be effective on more than one type of tree or pest. The label will outline proper application for the outcomes you’re expecting.” This loops back to those local integrated pest management (IPM) programs, where the state agency monitors changes and offers up-to-date information on pests and diseases. Familiarizing yourself with the pests in your area will help you better understand the labels on the products you’re using.
“You might get a range on a label for application windows, timing, etcetera, depending on where you’re located and what you’re applying the pesticide to,” says Anderson. “Some manufacturers offer supplemental application guides. These help folks better understand what rates they want to use and give examples, so they’re not left in this obscure area trying to interpret what the label means.”
When it comes to monitoring pesticide usage, the EPA doesn’t really get involved unless you do damage on a fairly large scale. You’re more likely to hear from your state agriculture department. “If an inspector comes for a visit, they might ask if you have a label handy for the product you’re using,” says Doolittle. “They’ll read it to ensure you’re following application instructions, have proper PPE and are using it in an environment conducive to what the label stipulates.”
Create a storage plan
If you’re going to buy pesticides, it’s important to have a storage plan in place. Your state’s certifying agency will have guidance for how to set one up. Additionally, the study manual for the qualified operator’s license will have information for setting up your PHC program, including solutions for how and where to store pesticides.
“My experience has been that inspectors are not out to get you,” says Anderson. “When they do write citations, it’s to protect the public. Invite these people in and show them what you have or what you’re thinking of doing, and they’ll help you get everything set up correctly.”
Several contributors suggested proactively reaching out to local inspectors to ask for advice on how to set up your storage, eye-wash stations, recordkeeping processes and more, so that you’re accountable and ready for inspection later on.
Keep thorough records
As the public becomes more aware of overall environmental impact, the possibility of getting a call from your local inspector increases just by being spotted out in the community. As a result, keeping records is very important for your business.
Every person who participated in this article agreed that inspectors don’t want to get you in trouble – they genuinely want to help you while protecting the public and the environment. “We tell our customers that as long as you follow the product label, document everything you do and keep those records organized, you are demonstrating that you understand the importance of using pesticides responsibly,” states Elsa Cousineau, technical specialist with Lallemand Plant Care.
Recordkeeping is very important; it certainly is not something you can skimp on or skip.
“Some states only require records of RUPs, but across the board, our recommendation is to keep track of all pesticide applications, so you’re prepared to answer questions when the public spots your truck or crew and calls something in,” Anderson says.
TCIA’s PHC Monitor Record is an excellent resource for smaller companies just getting started, because it takes the guesswork out of what you need to track and keeps everything organized, according to Anderson. The PHC Monitor Record is a TCIA members-only resource available on the organization’s website.
“From a cynical point of view, tools like this are important for covering your assets. However, from a business sense, it lets you know where products are going, how much was used and where they were applied, which is particularly helpful when you have multiple technicians out in the field,” Anderson suggests. Be aware that different states have different records requirements, so if your business brings you across state borders, you’ll need to have plans in place that support those different requirements.
As you identify new treatment opportunities and bring on new products to support that work, maximizing learning opportunities is a no-brainer. Whether you’re looking for guidelines to reference as needed, a webinar or an in-person training, you’ll find a variety of options. In fact, many manufacturers offer training opportunities, and it’s easy to reach out to ask them what they offer. Here are a few examples.
“Lallemand Plant Care products are a bit different from those of some of the other companies,” states Cousineau. “When folks are considering their options of what type of pesticide is right for their PHC program, we offer an environmentally sensitive alternative to some of the other conventional pesticides on the market. As a result, we do expect to answer questions. All of our products have technical-guideline sheets, labels and safety-data sheets for easy access any time. We also provide in-person or virtual training on our products and equipment for all our new customers or customers requiring refresher training.”
To echo this sentiment, Gorden adds, “Arborjet is considered by both private and public arborists as a resource. We don’t sell directly to customers; we sell through distribution, but we work directly with applicators to provide the knowledge to support their PHC efforts. Our distributors make sure their customers are aware of the training resources we offer. These include training courses for pesticide credits to maintain their licenses and ISA continuing-education credits. People come to us looking for advice.”
Mauget offers an optional certification for those who have already earned their pesticide applicator’s license, but it’s also a way to ensure Mauget products are properly used when performing microinjection. The course covers the history of Mauget, tree physiology, the benefits of microinjection, injecting conifers and troubleshooting. This course has been converted to an online format, and those who pass the test with a score of 80% or higher receive ISA CEUs..
Additionally, self-guided programs such as TCIA’s Tree Care Academy PHC Technician are an excellent resource for those building a PHC program. This particular program builds on concepts introduced in TCIA’s Tree Care Specialist program, and offers CEUs to support both ISA and CTSP certifications.
Ensuring you’re connected to the state’s IPM program is also important. As pests and diseases evolve and new ones are identified, those departments are key to staying on top of developments and proactively addressing them for your clients.
The regulatory side of the PHC business isn’t that complicated. By keeping it simple, with just a few protocols to start, getting licensed, learning how to read labels, creating a storage plan, keeping comprehensive records and staying on top of continuing education, adding PHC has the potential to be a very profitable portion of your tree care business. Identifying the available resources in the states where you do business, establishing relationships with your state agency and leveraging those relationships to properly set up your IPM program will go a long way in ensuring you have a solid foundation for this new service offering.
Emily W. Duane is a freelance writer specializing in business and marketing topics for the outdoor trades and recreation industries. She is currently based in Denver, Colorado.