In a business landscape where experimentation is the norm, the actual landscape may be the only thing that stays the same. Minor League Baseball playing surfaces need to meet high standards night in and night out under all kinds of weather, and there's a strong incentive to stick with what traditionally works.
But the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, are changing the way they grow grass from the roots up. In April, the team announced that it was beginning to transition the field at Northeast Dental Delta Stadium away from synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to an all-organic surface. "Transition" is a key word, as the process is expected to take two years.
"When you say you're going to go organic, people think you're going to stop using synthetic pesticides cold turkey, but you have to build the soil up to so it can [take care of] it itself" without synthetic materials, explained Fisher Cats team president Mike Ramshaw.
That process also requires some outside help. The Fisher Cats were nudged in the organic direction by Stonyfield Farm, a yogurt company headquartered in Londonderry, New Hampshire, a 10-minute drive from Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester. In 2018, Stonyfield introduced an initiative called #Playfree, dedicated to helping municipalities and regional governments convert public green spaces -- especially those where children play -- to organically grown fields. Cities from South Portland, Maine, to Costa Mesa, California, are getting help from Stonyfield, which had earmarked over $800,000 for the initiative by this April.
Stonyfield already had a sponsorship arrangement with the Fisher Cats, but at a meeting last May the club learned about #Playfree and began to chew on the idea of converting their own playing surface.
"They're pillars of the community, making a difference doing all kinds of things [on the local level]," Ramshaw said. "They shared with me this one initiative. ... I said, 'I don't want to speak for our turf manager, but that sounds like a great idea. Why not do that here?'"
As it turned out, their turf manager -- Greg Nigrello -- thought it was a great idea, too. In fact, he was thrilled to have an opportunity to do innovative work ('something's no one's done," in Ramshaw's words) while improving the day-to-day safety conditions of his job.
"There have been known risks for a long time, but at this point in the turf industry, we have a standard of 'What works is what works,' and not a lot of guys are willing to take chances to make changes, so they just keep going with synthetics that they have," Nigrello said.
"[Minimal synthetic chemical usage] is something great -- something that you look for in this job. I worked in golf courses my whole adult life up until I came here, and guys are there spraying four, five times a week. They're spraying so much. No one thinks about the safety of us. Now, having something I'm working with where I know I don't have to worry about developing [a related health problem] in 20 years, that is great."
Safety and long-term health was a major motivating factor in the decision to take on the challenge, according to Ramshaw.
"It's a good idea for me, personally -- I'm a father of four kids," he said. "When we talked about the idea ... I knew if we could remove some of those harmful pesticides from the field that the players are playing on, where we have kids out there playing catch with the players and going on during different events on the field. … If we can reduce the amount of harmful pesticides and still get the same results, that's a great thing. And, from a business point of view, long term it's going to save us 25 percent in materials and up to 50 percent savings in water. From my perspective, it's a no-brainer."
That doesn't mean it's easily done, or without upfront costs. Because no other professional baseball organizations have made this conversion before, there's no blueprint within the game for Nigrello to follow. Unlike the fields in public parks, the Fisher Cats' playing surface also needs to remain open in its entirety and in consistently top-notch condition throughout the six months of the Minor League season. The team has hired a consultant, Chip Osborne of Osborne Organics, to guide them through transition. Osborne has worked with issues of turf and sustainability for over 15 years, and his clients include Pepperdine University (which sits atop a lush, green hill in Malibu, California) and Stonyfield.
Stonyfield 'chief organic optimist' Gary Hirshberg visited in April. (New Hampshire Fisher Cats)
"We hired him separate from that arrangement [with Stonyfield]," Ramshaw said. "What he does for them versus what he does for us is apples and oranges. Understanding that Greg's baby is the field here and it needs to look good and be safe for players, he understands that we need more.
"Doing something like this, where you're the first, you've got to have good people. Greg is fantastic, and Chip is fantastic as well. Chip is sharing with Greg what he's learned over the years, so hopefully Greg will be able to help other teams in their process at some point."
It starts with an analysis of the soil, which will teach Osborne and the team what's already there and what the team will have to add and nourish until the natural life of the field becomes, to some degree, self-sustaining.
"Once we get those soil samples, our consultant goes over what that looks like and he starts suggesting what we can do to grow the ecosystem of the grass," Ramshaw said. "The goal is for it to be creating the nitrogen and microbes it needs by itself when you use [organic fertilizers]. The grass is building it all for itself, using a natural process. [Osborne] said that September to October is when we're going to see it thrive the most in the first year, and we can build that PH to where it needs to be so that next year we're ahead of the game."
When the transition is complete, the field will require some preparation before long homestands and community events on the field, but that's fine with Nigrello.
"Hopefully, it ends up being less work [overall], because if we're able to be more proactive, we don't have to fix it later because we've already taken care of it out in front.," he said.
With the process underway, even considering that unforeseen challenges may arise ("Who knows in New England?"), Ramshaw sees only upside.2019 MiLB include
"We haven't found a disadvantage yet. One would argue that the upfront cost is the disadvantage," he said. "Not everybody has the benefit of having Stonyfield in their backyard, but we are fortunate to have them there. They are contributing to us turning that over. That's one of the reasons other teams haven't done it: the upfront costs of going through the consultant, getting a field test."
But with all the advantages Ramshaw is looking at, the transition to an organic field could be just the beginning.
"We see this as a first step toward sustainability," he said. 'We want to have planter boxes here that we're using to grow herbs and vegetables that we can use onsite for food and beverage. There are natural plants we'd like to put out that deter mosquitoes, and to [put them in] along the Riverwalk [outside the stadium]. We're looking to get more green initiative partners with more organizations."