When is a pollinator program more than just a patch of milkweed?
Chris Allen, the superintendent at Eagle Lakes Golf Club in Naples, Fla., spoke with me to discuss why the BASF Monarch Challenge has enhanced the facility.
Tell us a little about your course …
We are a fairly unique semi-private daily fee club; one of the few courses in the Naples area open for public play during the winter. Our peak season runs from January to March/Easter with anywhere from 220 to 300-plus rounds per day. With an operating budget that is on average about 25 percent of most clubs in this area, we are always searching for the most economical methods to produce the highest value product.
Like a lot of other places, staffing can be nightmarish. I am lucky to have an older crew (47 to 80 years old) willing to work amazingly hard. We have four full-time crew members, and another four seasonal part-time crew members, no mechanic, no assistants, no irrigation tech and no spray tech. I’m incredibly lucky to have clubhouse staff that assists during off-season months as well as an extremely supportive spouse at home!
What spurred your interest in the BASF Living Acres - Monarch Challenge program?
A couple years ago Erich Slider with SiteOne invited me to attend the BASF Pinehurst Experience. Personally for me, Pinehurst is such a special place I couldn’t turn it down. While there, I learned about their products and I was intrigued by their Living Acres program and The Monarch Challenge. I thought, “Oh someday that would be nice.”
Fast forward a year or so, I had another chance to learn more about the program with Max McGee of SiteOne. We’d just been through Hurricane Irma and I realized that it could also help us aesthetically. From there I worked directly with Luke Barnett our rep for BASF who couldn’t be more helpful.
How did you get started?
I started very small. I designated a 250- to 300-square foot area near a comfort station to grow the milkweed plants because I really didn’t know how it would be accepted. BASF sent me the plants, signage, hardware for the signage, and nice quality educational materials for our members, players and staff. I noticed early on our starter plants were having a tough time, so I purchased about five 3-gallon plants for about $50 from SiteOne here in Naples. Once planted, I simply watered them as needed and nature did the rest.
What did you learn along the way that you didn’t necessarily expect?
The amount of plant material monarch caterpillars can consume is absolutely mind boggling. I can’t overstate that. It blows your mind. The more milkweed you provide as a food source, the more caterpillars you will have. Butterflies showed up literally within days of planting and 10 to 14 days later we had our first batch of six to seven caterpillars. That was a few months ago. A few weeks ago, with about 20 more milkweed plants added over time, we had 263 caterpillars feasting.
How has this been a rewarding thing for your facility?
The most noticeable thing has been the reaction of our members and players. There has been so much positive support and interaction from every type of golfer. Whether it's questions, comments, or just pure amazement from being able to see the life-cycle and stages of development, they all love it. Our small starter area has triggered some great conversations to give us an opportunity to clear up so many misconceptions the public has about golf courses and the turf industry impact on our environmental surroundings.
One reward that wasn’t directly noticeable right away is financial. Our success with this program and the support of BASF has afforded our GM and I the opportunity to rethink our entire turf program. Hurricane Irma forced us to remove about 10 acres of useless turf area and we removed another 10 as part of a design change. Our goal is to reduce our playable turf area by another 20 acres by the end of summer and replace all of that removed turf with a wildflower/milkweed sustainability combination. Essentially this will double the impact of our fertilizer and chemical budget without injecting any new money, allowing us to focus on the grass that really matters. Refocusing turf applications and creating new wildlife habitat is a win-win for us.
How has it impacted you personally?
Consistently putting in 80- to 100-hour weeks doesn’t happen without some stress factors. This program and these butterflies have given me another way to de-stress. I could be having a tough morning or one of those weeks you have four Mondays in a row, and I’ll take five minutes and watch a butterfly hatch or a caterpillar transform into a cocoon … it’s hard to explain but it really helps me and has a positive impact on all of us. It’s just pure enjoyment for myself and my crew to witness the development and full life cycle of these things.
What’s your final piece of advice to other superintendents?
Sustainability will save you money! It’s too easy not to try.
At the end of the day we all want a healthier environment for our golf course, families, etc. It’s up to all of us to create a more positive public perception of golf courses and our impact. It won’t happen overnight but taking advantage of this BASF program and others like it can be a meaningful mechanism for all of us to accomplish that goal.
Pat Jones is GCI’s editor-at-large.