It Costs Millions to Damage Your Community’s Future, Yet Far Less To Protect It

By Rick Rydell

A decade ago, Chip Osborne did something highly unusual in his Massachusetts town of Marblehead: After 10 years sitting on the board of the Recreation and Parks Commission, he voted against installing an artificial recreation field nearby. His was the lone dissenting vote.   “Three years into the field, it was a big sinkhole, and a kid with firecrackers burned a big hole,” he said. “Now it’s been 10 years, and it’s going to take another major fundraising campaign to put another one in.”  Osborne, a longtime professional horticulturist, wishes his fellow voters back then would have realized what he’s known for years: There are hidden costs to fake grass. What if there were a better option for America’s fields and parks? One that lasts just as long or longer than artificial turf, without the sky-high costs. The good news: The option exists, and one school district in the San Francisco Bay Area is giving it a shot.

Natural Novato

Novato Unified School District (NUSD), the home of nearly 7,200 students in Marin County, will be transitioning three of its fields over the next couple of years to organically-managed natural turf. The project is being managed by Non-Toxic Schools, and funded by A Voice for Choice and  Beyond Pesticides.  The organic turf differs from chemically-managed natural turf in two key areas: 

  • Organic natural turf doesn’t start with grass, but with the soil beneath it. Testing is done to analyze nutrient deficiencies, which are then addressed. Healthy soil produces healthy grass that is more drought-resistant, durable, and lush than conventional methods. The importance of focusing on soil health is also the foundation of organic agriculture. The term “soil food web” was coined by Dr. Elaine Ingham, the world’s foremost soil biologist, over four decades ago.
  • Conventional methods rely heavily on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, a big no-no in the organic natural turf world. This dependency on chemicals eventually destroys the soil microbiome, and creates reliance on a chemical treadmill.

Think of a bodybuilder addressing a diagnosed iron deficiency via a diet of iron-rich foods, alongside quality muscle-building exercises, sleep, and hydration. Now contrast that visual to a bodybuilder who simply swallows steroids. Which is going to be the healthiest, and most functionally productive in the long run? “Toxic pesticides are not needed to manage schools and playing fields,” says Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “We have proved that organic land management is effective in delivering beautiful turf that meets community expectations and the need for great playing surfaces.” One of those community expectations is that their chosen turf saves money, especially in the long run. Not a problem, says organic turf advocates. “The argument that artificial synthetic turf will save money for school districts and communities is not correct,” says Feldman. “And it ignores issues of the community’s contribution to the existential health, biodiversity, and climate crises as a result of its reliance on fossil fuel-based plastic turf, and the limited life span of the turf.”

Concealed Costs

One draw of artificial turf—once you pay the sky-high costs of initial purchase and installation—is that it supposedly costs nothing more for years. But that’s not accurate. The reality: Synthetic turf costs more to install, is as much or more of an expense to maintain, and needs to be disposed of (thousands of pounds to landfill) and replaced every 5–10 years, resulting in a much higher price to the community. Over the past few decades, artificial turf has had a price tag between $2 and $5 per square foot. That doesn’t sound terrible until you consider how large most municipal or school fields are. That means the average fake-grass football field will set a school or city back anywhere from $640,000 to a staggering $2 million! What often results is that communities—including lower-income populaces—rally together to raise funds for a one-and-done installation of synthetic turf, without further money earmarked for maintenance and replacement. Contrast that figure to natural turfgrass with healthy native soils, which ranges approximately $2.50 per square foot. Even when you add in average maintenance and equipment costs, organically-managed natural turf is still the clear financial winner. One cost comparison done by turfgrass producers in Indiana and Iowa found the average total annual cost of artificial turf fields was $109,000. Professional-grade natural turf, on the other hand, ran in the neighborhood of $90,000. Chip Osborne, the owner of an organically managed natural turf company called Osborne Organics, has seen it firsthand. “All synthetic fields are not created equal,” he said. “I tell people it’s probably going to be at least a $5 million investment over 20 years. But I could give someone a brand new, natural grass field every 2 years for 10 years at the same price.” That’s because synthetic fields still require the upkeep of pesticides to eliminate weeds which inevitably poke through, water to cool the surface on hot days, expensive patch jobs for tears, padding (aka infill replacement) for the bald spots, and specialized workers to do the repairs. A study cited by Forbes, showed that natural grass fields were actually 49% cheaper over 20 years than their artificial counterparts. Another study, this one authored by Osborne, concluded: “… the cost of a natural turf management program is incrementally higher in the first two years, but then decreases significantly as soil biology improves and water requirements diminish. Total expenditures over five years show a cost savings of more than 7% using natural turf management, and once established, annual cost savings of greater than 25% can be realized.” And this isn’t even considering artificial turf’s negative impact on the environment and human bodies! “We are looking forward to NUSD achieving success in the adoption of organic land management on the three demonstration sites, expanding to all NUSD land, and, in so doing, serve as a model for neighboring school districts and municipalities,” Feldman said. A community event is scheduled in Novato for September 27th, and will include special guests, Chip Osborne, and Jay Feldman, the director of Beyond Pesticides. They will explain the basics and importance of site-specific organic field management, and funding available to help other North Bay cities and schools go organic. On September 28th, there will be a full day in-person technical training on organic field management with Chip Osborne in Petaluma. CE credits have been applied for. This training is for those who want to learn the systems-based approach to maintaining healthy lawns and fields for a sustainable future.  To find out more about the September events, visit Non Toxic Schools.