This month in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we meet Jeremy Husen, Executive Director, Alliance for Low Input Sustainable Turf (A-LIST). This organization is a non-profit university and industry cooperative that serves to test, identify and promote varieties to consumers that maintain acceptable turf quality while requiring reduced water, chemical and fertility inputs.
Husen has 15 years of turfgrass experience, having worked with every facet of the grass seed lifecycle including research, production, product development, marketing and sales. He also serves as the director of marketing for MSH associates, an agricultural-based marketing and accounting firm based in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, also known as the Grass Seed Capitol of the World. Husen, a native of Oregon, graduated in 1997 from Oregon State University with a degree in marketing and visual communication.
SportsTurf: What are your main responsibilities? And what does a regular working week entail?
Husen: As the Executive Director my primary duty is to spread the A-LIST message to the turf industry and beyond. I work with industry associations, our university cooperators, our members’ distributors and key opinion leaders across the turf industry to bring about awareness to our program. I also develop, in conjunction with our board of directors, our marketing and strategic plans and then work to implement them. This includes managing our trials, speaking at field days and other turf events, participating on industry committees, speaking to distributors and end users, and fostering relationships with our research partners. As important as those duties are, I also consider my role to be that of a general turf advocate. I think those of us who work in the turf industry have an obligation to help elevate the image of turfgrass to the world around us. I love talking grass with anyone that will listen, and most are amazed at how much turfgrass impacts their lives every day, and how important it is to protect this valuable resource.
SportsTurf: How are the metrics generated in A-LIST’s voluntary evaluation program?
Husen: We spent a lot of time setting up our research protocols, so they delivered what the industry was asking for in improved varieties but also, we wanted to create a program that was transparent and quantifiable. We worked with our university cooperators, our members’ research directors and industry experts to develop a system that considered both low-input metrics and turf quality together. There are a lot of varieties that can live under low-input conditions, but they aren’t necessarily attractive to look at. Our trials coincide with the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program cycles, so this last year we planted our new Kentucky bluegrass trial along with the NTEP. Our members submit varieties to our university cooperators to undergo the A-LIST low-input trials. These are completely managed by our university cooperators utilizing human and digital-image-analysis data from light boxes and digital cameras. After the first year of data the top varieties are selected. These varieties are then evaluated using NTEP turf quality data. If the varieties have superior performance at two or more trial locations and are in the top 50% of the NTEP turf quality trials, they are given a “promising” identification. If they perform to the same level the following year they are granted A-LIST certification.
SportsTurf: What are the most important changes you’ve seen in turfgrass varieties over past 10 years?
Husen: The focus on low-input varieties has really made a significant impact. As municipalities, water districts and state agricultural departments began restricting water and chemical use, the need for low-input varieties became evident. There was a lot of germplasm that had been shelved in favor of varieties that showed exceptional turf quality or had unique traits such as tall fescue with rhizomes. Those shelved varieties became very relevant with the national move toward sustainable practices. The beauty contest was over and varieties that could maintain acceptable turf quality with little to no inputs became the most important varieties that were being worked on. These traits, along with salt tolerance for effluent water use, were taking center stage. As we move toward these low-input type turf grasses it helps with the overall impression of the turf industry as well. Not only are they the right varieties to plant for most applications, they also do more to help the industry image overall. As stewards of the industry and land these low input, sustainable varieties help us tell an important story about doing the right thing for our sports fields and the environment.
SportsTurf: What are the biggest challenges facing grass seed companies?
Husen: I’ve worked in the turf industry for almost 15 years and it still amazes me the amount of low-quality seed being used. The biggest challenge I see is getting end users to move to improved varieties and move away from commodity seed. There are so many high-quality varieties out there that work in any region and any application that to choose an underperforming variety based on price costs you more in the end and causes more work and headaches. I know budgets are tight, especially at municipalities and smaller schools, but spending a little more for good varieties when planting can save a lot of money in the long run.
SportsTurf: What improvements are breeders working on now? Are we close to having more drought-resistance grasses or other major breakthroughs?
Husen: Drought, wear and pest/disease resistance are always at the top of a breeders list. These are great benefits for the end-user but still need to be produced cost effectively. Breeders have started looking at crop yields more and more over the years. I have lost count of how many amazing varieties are sitting on shelves because they can’t produce seed for harvest. So, it’s not so much about creating the next variety with a specific trait, it’s about breeding a variety that has all the good traits: drought and heat tolerance, disease/pest resistance, excellent turf quality, ability to produce ample crops for productions, and performance for the end-user, all while doing so with reduced inputs.
Often the optimal solution can’t be had in a single variety, so breeders are instrumental in helping the seed companies develop mixtures and blends that can handle a multitude of tasks and different times of the year. The A-LIST looks to identify the ideal candidates for these solutions. The varieties that are identified are the best-of-the-best and offer end users significant improvements from traditional varieties.
SportsTurf: How do you think natural turf proponents should approach the increasing number of synthetic turf fields being built?
Husen: We have to speak truth to the lies that are spread about natural turf. We weren’t there combating the negative press we were getting early in the fight against natural turf, so we have a lot of ground to make up. Opponents of natural turf and lawns created a negative narrative about water consumption and egregious chemical use; we weren’t there with a unified voice rebuffing those statements with our own claims about carbon sequestration, groundwater filtration or the cooling effect turf has. We must be more vocal about those things now, not just within the industry but to everyone we know.
Those of us who are proponents need to arm ourselves with good information that is available from our industry associations such as the Turfgrass Producers International, GCSAA, and of course, the STMA. Our most important partners in the discussion for natural turf playing surfaces are the players themselves. It’s no secret that their preference leans heavily toward natural fields.
In addition, I think the work that the STMA has undertaken with their SAFE program is doing a lot to bring attention to the safety aspect of playing surfaces as well. I know there is work going on to quantify the increased safety benefits of playing on natural surfaces and this is our best avenue to combat artificial turf installations. Player safety is the key and we know that natural fields offer the best surface to avoid injury.
SportsTurf: How has social media impacted your work?
Husen: It’s created a daily opportunity to see what’s going on across our industry. Traditionally you would see your peers once or twice a year and find out what everyone had been working on. Now with Twitter and Facebook you can see it in real-time. It’s also a great way to share your message for free. It’s another tool in the marketing toolbox that I’m learning to use.
SportsTurf: What are your passions and interests outside of work?
Husen: My wife and I have five kids so most of our spare time revolves around whatever they are doing. Our two oldest boys are in college and require more money than time right now. Our three youngest, all girls, are involved in all sorts of school activities from volleyball to drama to choir. But if we find ourselves with some free time we take our trailer to the coast and camp, or we take the boat out and fish or crab. We have a place in northwest Montana as well, on Flathead Lake near Glacier National Park. We are currently building a home out there and that has given our family a goal we are all working toward. But my passion is fishing, from fly-fishing blue ribbon trout streams to chasing tuna in the ocean—I love it all!