Disease is apparent on the green. Little spots of yellow-brown grass dot the front of the putting green at Blue Ocean Golf Club’s seventh hole in Sechelt. It’s fusarium, the most costly disease for West Coast clubs. Tristan Tuplin, Blue Ocean’s superintendent, wants to show it off. “When we’re applying pesticide, we’re applying it for the turf, not for the cosmetics.”
He then points out a few streaks of moss behind the putting green. “In years past, we would have fertilized everything back here.”
Now, Tuplin said he doesn’t look at moss as a pest. Instead, he focuses on cultivating healthier grass that will eventually outcompete the mossy patches.
Tuplin and other Sunshine Coast superintendents say their greenskeeping practices represent a shift away from mass applications of fertilizer and pesticides, which they say began in 2008 after the financial crisis.
Government policies are also changing course. Since July 1, 2016, all golf clubs in the province must submit their annual pesticide use to the B.C. Ministry of Environment as part of an amendment to Integrated Pest Management, a provincial program that regulates the sale and use of pesticides. Courses also must obtain a Pesticide User’s Licence to apply pesticides legally.
As part of these changes, the ministry inspectors began monitoring B.C. courses in 2017. The Sunshine Coast courses were the first to be audited, which involves an inspection of the new requirements under the IPM regulation and a questionnaire about the course itself. According to the ministry, in 2017 Pender Harbour Golf Club Society used a total of 4.1 kilograms of pesticide active ingredient, Blue Ocean Golf Club used a total of 60.74 kilograms and Sunshine Coast Golf Club used a total of 142.3 kilograms.
Each course said it only treats their putting greens. Sunshine Coast Golf Club applies more product than both courses because of its acreage (its greens are three times the size of Pender Harbour’s), its micro climate, and because it uses some organic products, which must be applied at a higher volume, said Nathan Wade, greens superintendent at Sunshine Coast Golf and Country Club.
Since 2017 was the first full year that courses were required to submit data to the ministry, a summary report listing averages across golf courses has not been published, and the audit reports will not be complete until later this year.
A 2010 provincial report says agriculture accounts for 87 per cent of pesticide sales, and golf courses, turf and landscaping account for five per cent.
The Pender Harbour Golf Club leases land from the Sunshine Coast Regional District (SCRD) and the agreement bans pesticides from being applied on the driving range. Pesticides are used on one per cent of the property. “The only time we use herbicide is serious weeds that are a threat to the environment,” said superintendent Jason Haines, using the example of Japanese knotweed, which he calls an environmental disaster.
Still, pesticides used on the courses are toxic. For example, a Danish study found that azoxystrobin, an active ingredient in the fungicide called Heritage Maxx, which is used on all Sunshine Coast courses, were found to leach through loamy soils. The pesticide is harmful to aquatic organisms.
A recent CBC documentary, Dad and the Dandelions, linked pesticides on golf courses to cancer, creating a public outcry and forcing courses to respond. “We are concerned about these toxic effects, so we take all the precautions,” Haines said. He also said that going organic isn’t the solution.
“Our goal is to not use any corrective pesticides, whether they’re organic or synthetic, and to prevent the pest in the first place,” Haines said.
He said many clubs that have tried organics have gone out of business. “We can’t just say we are going to be organic, because there are no proven methods. There is one course in the world that does it,” he said, referring to a U.S. course featured in Dad and the Dandelions. He said the documentary left out the negative elements, like applying huge volumes of organic pesticide. “That’s not good. It’s still product designed to kill things… It’s sulphur, it’s a huge amount of sulphur.”
Pesticides are rarely used on the 150-acre Sunshine Coast Golf and Country Club, said Nathan Wade, greens superintendent. “I have dozens of acres of native forest, slough, flowering native shrubs and I have 1.3 acres that are greens,” which is where pesticides are used. Wade applies some organic products as well, such as Civitas, which he said partially accounts for the higher volume of pesticides used compared to the other courses.
“It takes upwards of 30 kilograms, so 10 times the amount to do an organic application versus a synthetic,” Wade said.
The club also conducts third-party water testing to measure pesticide contamination. “The last water quality testing sample I would have submitted would have been less than 0.004 parts per billion of a product that I use.”
Blue Ocean Golf Club uses similar practices as the Sunshine Coast Golf and Country Club, though with a smaller budget, said Ken Langdon, general manager. “The Ministry of Environment was here in August to go over our storage and historical use, record keeping and regulatory checks that need to be used to properly manage your pesticide program, in terms of how it’s stored, locked up, ventilated, cleaned and labeled, so checkmarks across the board.”
In 2017, the club changed from blanket spraying using a truck to spot application via a backpack sprayer.
Pesticides are regulated at a federal, provincial and municipal level. On SCRD land, registered pesticides are allowed only as a last resort when weeds or invasive species pose a significant risk “to the environment, economy or public health.” The District of Sechelt and the Town of Gibsons also have a bylaw preventing some uses of pesticides and require a licence to use them.
And while the superintendents believe in the process of reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizer, golfers – including Blue Ocean’s Ken Langdon – are still adapting to the trend. Over at the mossy patch that Tuplin said is functional as a playing surface despite lacklustre aesthetics, Langdon disagreed. “I don’t know how the ball is going to react coming off that moss as well as I do coming out of a consistent grass.”
Langdon is new to the Sunshine Coast, having arrived last summer after spending a decade at Victoria’s Olympic View Golf Club. He said the Coast superintendents are shifting his perspective.
“The old school guys who are used to … firm, fast, green, lush and consistent – over time that kind of mentality will go away and it will be replaced by people who are willing to accept conditions like this, understanding that it means less pesticides, less toxicity.”