One of the best investments FNGLA has made in recent years is a $5,000 research grant to Adam Dale, Ph.D., to buy some tools and plugs of turf. By my calculations, the return is about 6,400 percent.
The ROI could grow even more if Dale amasses evidence to support his idea that mixing grasses in a single lawn beats the traditional lawn monoculture. If he’s right, he’ll find that biodiversity in the blades leads to biodiversity in the bugs. The right blend could create conditions where “good” bugs and less-enticing lawns will keep the “bad” bugs at bay.
It would be a huge ecological win for the planet if we could use fewer pesticides on what is by far the nation’s largest irrigated crop. It’s also a huge win for turf growers and their customers because the more you can fight bad bugs with good bugs and natural plant defenses, the less they need to spend on lawn maintenance (e.g., insecticides, weed control, lawn replacement).
Dale (an affiliate faculty member of the Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology) took that $5,000 from FNGLA to turn his idea into one which the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ research office awarded him a $50,000 early career seed grant to explore. Then he used the preliminary data he collected with that funding to make the case to the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Earlier this year, NIFA awarded Dale’s team $325,000 to blend several St. Augustine cultivars within single lawns. That’s the 6,400 percent payoff.
Before you argue a mix of grasses will look like a messy patchwork, look at the photo Dale had shot from a drone.
Check out the second column. Some of those squares are planted in a single cultivar. Others in two. Yet others in four.
OK, yes, it’s an aerial – not what you’d see as you walk across it. But Dale’s plots have passed its first eye-level test. Dale had a bunch of you walk his plots at a field day last year and rate each for its aesthetics. You scored the blended plots as highly as you scored the single-cultivar plots.
A single field day walk through the grass doesn’t prove the concept. But it’s enough to prompt funders to help Dale find the magic mix.
Dale’s idea is up against another idea – that aesthetics depend on uniformity. There are at least six widely used St. Augustine cultivars in Florida alone. Dale wants to find the combination which maximizes pest control while producing the most uniform-looking lawn so sod growers will produce it and homeowners will buy it.
Partnerships are the way a major land-grant university works. Both industry (you) and academia (UF/IFAS research office) saw promise in something, and we got government (USDA-NIFA) to see that promise, too.
We’re partners because we see some of the same investments as worthy. Not every investment you make will be repaid 64 times over by Washington. We at UF/IFAS believe the chances of a modest investment leading to a big impact increase when we bring together the scientific training and innovative thinking of an Adam Dale with your day-to-day experience of how ideas play out in the marketplace.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.