The SportsTurf Interview: Vickie Wallace

In this “The SportsTurf Interview,” we meet Vickie Wallace of the University of Connecticut, the Extension Educator responsible for the Sustainable Turf and Landscape Program in the state.

Vickie recently was elected to the Board of the STMA Foundation, SAFE, The Foundation for Safer Athletic Fields. She is involved with IPM education and outreach programs for landscape professionals and municipal turf and grounds managers. A current focus is directed toward the ongoing installation of weather stations to schools across Connecticut, and subsequent educational outreach of these weather stations into general school grounds and turf care programs. She also is involved with the evaluation of low maintenance turfgrasses and the evaluation and efficacy of minimum risk weed management products. Before joining UConn in 2010, Ms. Wallace worked as an agronomist and sales representative in the turfgrass seed industry.

SportsTurf: What are you responsible for as an Extension agent at UConn?

Wallace: My statewide Extension responsibilities focus on sustainability issues of school/municipal sports turf and grounds managers, as well as lawn and landscape professionals. Much of my programing involves education, centered on the pesticide-free management of safe athletic field surfaces and the care of municipal properties managed with reduced inputs. Programming effort also is directed toward environmentally sound lawn/landscape management protocols that encourage reduced inputs in the long-term care of the managed landscape.

SportsTurf: How is life different now compared to when you worked in the seed industry?

Wallace: A lot more report writing! Not fun! Seriously, in my former life as an agronomist and technical representative in the turfgrass seed industry, I was actively involved with developing seed recommendations and evaluating successful seed mixtures. I established a vast network of friends and professional contacts in the turfgrass industry during my years in sales. I was fortunate to be able to work closely with researchers and turfgrass breeders that were developing and evaluating new turfgrass cultivars when the seed industry was at its peak.

Now as an Extension Educator, I am more involved with the planning of educational programs, speaking at conferences, and some Extension-based research. While I am still involved with some turfgrass variety evaluation, I also am involved with other research projects. I continue to enjoy networking with industry friends when I am at conferences or workshops.

SportsTurf: What do you think is the best approach in trying to educate parents, school boards, etc., on using chemical products safely?

Wallace: The decision to use or not use pesticides is an emotionally charged issue. Decisions to ban pesticides on athletic fields/outdoor school properties often are made without understanding how pesticide applications may fit into the overall scheme of safe playing fields.

The most logical approach is to educate parents or other stakeholders, with a focus on player safety. Safe playing fields are the priority. It is important to highlight what makes an athletic field safe (uniform playing surfaces, improved soil health, reduced soil compaction to alleviate field hardness), and what will improve the overall health of the turfgrass. Here in Connecticut, we constantly promote and reinforce the value of IPM. Many people who advocate for legislation to restrict pesticide use on school or municipal properties have done so as they trash IPM.

In Connecticut, we also have nutrient legislation that limits the addition of Phosphorus as part of a turfgrass fertility program. Therefore, the use of compost and its impact as part of the overall nutrient management program of a turfgrass system also has been a focus of our school IPM programs.

SportsTurf: You know a lot of turf managers. What are they saying are the biggest obstacles to overcome for them to be successful today?

Wallace: Consistently, I hear five topics mentioned: professionalism, communication, staffing, budget and technology.

Sports turf managers must be professional and communicate well at all times whether speaking with administration, supervisors, colleagues, user groups, or town residents. They have to communicate their value and the role that they perform as it relates to turfgrass health, field safety, equipment, maintenance practices, field closures, or other technical issues. The days of sitting on a lawn mower and not interacting with the public or administration are over. The sports turf manager can offer a unique perspective about field care that needs to be included in all decisions that impact field use. Being professional and communicating effectively creates opportunities to be recognized and be part of the conversation. It is equally important to appear and conduct oneself as a professional while performing any routine task.

Staffing is another huge issue. Often cities/towns cannot hire the appropriate number of people required to manage turf areas correctly or the skill set of those hired is limited. Few have the science background or understand what is required to provide a high quality turfgrass product. The sports turf manager must do as much as he/she can to improve the knowledge base of the staff/crew so that the crew understands how their tasks affect the ability to provide a quality turfgrass surface and/or a safe playing field.

Budget is another obstacle. There is a need to advocate for supplies, equipment, labor, and adequate field use. The sports turf manager must be able to communicate and justify what tools he/she needs for turfgrass maintenance in order to provide safe playing surfaces and meet user group expectations. Record keeping is critical. Here in Connecticut, we saw the majority of the school budgets remain the same or decrease as the pesticide ban went into effect. Pesticides were eliminated from the budget, and seed and fertilizer costs increased. Meanwhile, the labor required to care for the fields dramatically increased. Many sports turf managers with a limited budget are now recognizing that they need to strategically allocate their time, budget, and management strategies. Fields that are either highly visible or most intensely used must be prioritized over other fields.

Technology. Advances in technology have provided tools to help communicate and advance the value of the professionals in the industry. Municipal and school managers really need to embrace technology rather than shy away from it. Technology can efficiently support and communicate concerns about field safety. If the sports turf manager is reluctant or challenged to learn and integrate new technology into his/her management program, then he/she needs to hire someone that is familiar with the newer technologies to support his/her efforts.

SportsTurf: What are the most impactful changes you’ve seen in sports turf management in your career?

Wallace: Changes in technology have dramatically influenced how sports turf managers can make decisions and communicate about athletic field care. Think of it: we now can easily email pictures to university specialists and technical reps. We have apps that diagnose pest problems, GPS devices that map irrigation heads or help determine the square footage of your fields, access to real-time weather reports, and tools such as water sensors and devices like the Field Scout, which influence irrigation decision-making abilities. There are some really neat tools that can be used to support the turfgrass industry. All of us need to be open to new technological advances and new opportunities.

Also, many look to the Internet for answers first (it provides a quick answer, might be because limited staff, or budgets to attend events are unavailable) but often the information on the Internet is marketed and potentially unvetted. So, a knowledge gap using the Internet as the primary resource for information may also be an issue. With the rapid release of new products, university specialists and extension programs, such as field days, continue to provide unbiased information. Individuals that make the effort to network and attend university events gain perspectives that improve their decision-making abilities. That being said, university faculty also have to use new technology to reach their target audience. We need to think “outside the box” too.

Mandated legislation for changes in pesticide use, nutrient management, and water conservation are greatly affecting the management of athletic fields. The need for sports turf managers to be part of the dialogue is critical, since legislative decisions directly affect how they care for their fields.

The pool of students entering college with a desire to attain turfgrass/plant science degrees is declining. Therefore, fewer students are entering the workforce with a plant science background and the necessary skill set required to be quality sports turf managers.

Increased demands of towns to provide sporting and non-sport related events on athletic fields, and the expectation that those fields be high quality safe playing surfaces, is another obstacle. There is less time for turf to recover from wear between athletic events and other non-sport related events.

SportsTurf: How do you think the profession and industry will change in the next 10 years?

Wallace: Changes will continue in the advancement and use of technology that will support turfgrass management and sports turf managers. Changes will be multi-faceted (in-person training, communication to town residents or user groups). Newer technology will continue to be adopted by those turf professionals that manage sports fields.

SportsTurf: How has your career benefitted from being a member of STMA?

Wallace: Friendships formed, first and foremost, is the thought that first comes to mind. Friendships are renewed each year at the annual conference. I have also benefitted by serving on STMA committees and the STMA board. Networking opportunities have been tremendous. I can reach out to any STMA member at any time to discuss any issue. I have been able to meet and communicate with people outside of my state boundaries/region and have been able to see sports fields across the country. Within the association, I have been able to work on committees that expand and strengthen my professional skillset and also support my genuine passions and interests. For me, right now, I am so glad to be a member of the Environmental committee. It has been exciting to be a part of the development of the STMA Environmental Certification Program. This program will help define STM as environmental stewards, and provide great credibility and professionalism to the association and profession as a whole.

SportsTurf: How has social media impacted your work?

Wallace: Social media certainly has allowed sports turf managers the ability to refine techniques in field care, improve communication with regard to staffing, field playability/closures, and event scheduling.

Personally, I am a bit slow to embrace it, but at times I do see it as a valuable tool, as it provides quick information, maybe sometimes too quick! I also think social media has influenced people’s civility towards one another. We all have to navigate respectful ways to deliver positive and negative communications.

Social media has indeed improved networking and the ability to communicate among green industry professionals here in the state and beyond state borders. Travel to programs, so people look to social media to help provide technical information. Extension specialists and educators certainly could use it more to promote ourselves and outreach programs. Younger generations certainly think differently about social media. In 4-H programming, social media is used extensively. Kids that have been born into the social media age think and use it differently than most in my generation. For all of the positive attributes of social media, though, there is something valuable about a direct, engaged conversation that often is missed if communicating only via social media.

SportsTurf: What are your passions and interests outside of work?

Wallace: My interests outside of work are pretty simple. I love to cook, fuss with my plants (both in the house and garden), and go antiquing. In the summer, anytime I can, I enjoy kayaking on Narragansett Bay or walks along the beaches of RI. An occasional round of golf is fun, but it is not the first thing I would choose to do, if I had time available! I love to travel and enjoy spending time with my husband and my (now adult) children.

I am in my first year of a 2-year term as President of NESTMA, so that has occupied some of my available time, although I try to handle chapter needs during the week in the evening hours, so my weekends are free.