Photo courtesy of Virginia Green

Providing soil testing has not only helped Virginia Green increase its retention, but it’s also helped the lawn care company’s customers see them as the experts on all things dirt and turf.

Virginia Green was started in 2004 and now encompasses six locations to serve their 40,000 customers.

And while some companies may only turn to soil testing to find a solution to a problematic lawn, Virginia Green is fully embracing it.

Joe Donchez, sales manager with the company, and Jesse Johnson, a Virginia Green branch manager, cohosted a presentation on the impacts of soil testing with Real Green System’s Beth Berry during Solutions 2021 Virtual.

“We use it year-round,” Donchez says of soil testing. “We do about 11,000 soil tests a year, so we can justify that we know the soils in Virginia better than anyone else.”

A tool for advancement.

Virginia Green offers its customers two packages – an estate package and a premium package.

“In the estate program, that includes a free soil test and analysis,” Donchez says. The company uses an outside lab to process the tests.

“So, we pull those samples in January of every year when we’re doing the first application,” Donchez says. “(The lab) gets them analyzed and send us the results back…and then we determine whether or not they need additional lime applications.”

Due to the nature of the soil in their area, Donchez says customers usually need at least one lime application per year.

“We’ll figure out if they need a 50-pound rate or two 50-pound rates,” Donchez says. He notes the average application costs about $189.

Through the soil testing and lime applications, the company was able to virtually double its revenue for the service from 2019 to 2020.

“It’s been extremely successful for us over the past eight or nine years,” Donchez says. “When this started eight years ago, it was probably $70,000 in lawn revenue that we had on the books, and in 2019 we did about $600,000 and in 2020… we doubled our amount of lime sales and did about $1.2 million in lime last year.

“So, it’s been really beneficial to our customers and our retention and even the overall growth of our company,” he adds. “Our retention rates have been improved year over year about 4-5%. We’re at that 89th percentile from a retention standpoint.”

Soil testing gives technicians a list of all the organic materials in a client’s lawn to find out what nutrients are lacking and what may be too abundant.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Green

Digging in the dirt.

But Johnson points out that the importance of the soil test goes beyond the revenue boost. They can obviously help technicians determine what pH level the soil is at and how to improve it so the lawns are more adaptable to treatment.

“There’s a lot of agronomics that goes into it as well,” Johnson says. “The pH is the level of acidity in the soil. The range for pH levels is from 0-14. Ideally, turf and most plants prefer to at a 6.5 or so.”

If a lawn’s pH level is too low, a lime treatment can help bring that number up.

“It helps it take up the fertilizer and nutrients we’re putting out, which makes the lawn look nicer and helps with sales and retention,” Johnson says.

Donchez says using a precise amount of fertilizer is just a good financial practice.

“If you use soil testing correctly, you can drop fertilizer use,” Donchez says. “That’s another way of saving your money.”

Soil testing can also take a look at the organic makeup of the soil.

Johnson says magnesium and calcium are the two primary components in the company’s area but there are others.

Donchez says this provides additional opportunities to upsell more treatments.

“We’re going to be selling an additional winter potassium application to those customers who need it,” Donchez says. “That will help to increase another vertical.”

“We do 11,000 soil tests a year, so we can justify that we know the soils in Virginia better than anyone else.” Joe Donchez, sales manager, Virginia Green

Making the sale.

After the results from the test come in, Virginia Green sends them directly to the client so they can have a visual to understand the data.

“It’s a nice, color-coded document,” Donchez says. “It’s kind of like looking at your own blood test…you really want to take a look at it. Now, can they interpret it? No, but that’s why we call and have a conversation about it.”

Those conversations traditionally lead to additional treatments. But it’s not the only chance clients have to choose those services.

“We send out a spring and fall upsell through emails, and that’s a nice click-to-buy thing,” Donchez says. “We’ll sell a couple hundred off of that. We’re just sending an email at the touch of a button.

“Our customers respond very well to it,” he adds. “We’ve noticed our customers saying, ‘We’re Amazon people. Send me an email and I can click add to cart.’”

Even though most of the sales are done via email, that doesn’t mean the company’s technicians aren’t knowledgeable on the benefits of soil testing, since they are the ones having face-to-face interaction with customers.

“We’re training our technicians before we send them out there to have a conversation with a customer,” Donchez says.

Jesse Johnson, branch manager, says sticking to traditional methods of lime applications is more beneficial than the latest innovations.
Photo courtesy of Virginia Green

New is not always better.

When it’s time to perform the lime application, or other treatment, there are plenty of choices out there – including some new products.

“These are marketed as you get a faster response and need much less product than standard lime,” Johnson says. “Which is true. It does give you a quicker jump in pH with less product. The problem with it is it’s a temporary jump. So, you don’t get the duration of the pH staying in that adequate range for as long.”

Johnson equates these products to a band-aid rather than fixing the real issue.

“To me, the best way to go about it is to use the traditional limestone,” he says. “It’s going to take longer to see that response, but it will last much longer than those more costly products that are being marketed.”

Donchez agrees and says in the long run, the costs end up evening out.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Donchez says. “If you do the math…at the end you probably have the same product costs.”

“If you use soil testing correctly, you can drop fertilizer use. That’s another way of saving your money.” Joe Donchez, sales manager, Virginia Green

The duo say costs are also a contributing factor on why organic lawn care isn’t utilized more.

“Nobody wants to pay that organic price,” Donchez says. “Everyone wants to talk about it…but when you show them the price, everybody’s out.”

Donchez and Johnson say there may be a time when soil testing becomes mandatory, so lawn care companies making it a part of their process now can only help them down the road.

In Montgomery County Maryland, soil testing is already mandatory. And 2021 started things off with a new president, and EPA leader, so changes are expected.

“Well with the change of guard, it’s probably not far away,” Johnson predicts.

He adds that in Northern Virginia, more bills are being introduced to add restrictions to lawn care.

“I really recommend to all business owners to make sure you’re in touch with your representatives because they could have a huge effect on your business,” Johnson says. “We do all we can to make sure we’re in front of it.”

Donchez says setting up peer groups with others in the industry is also beneficial. In fact, he invites anyone to come check out one of Virginia Green’s facilities and see how they operate.

“It’s an open invitation,” he says. “We’re happy to do that.”