COLUMBIA — Robert Johnson leans forward on his bicycle as he fights his way up a steep section of Old Highway 63. He gasps for air and his legs pump like well-oiled pistons as motorists zip past.
The problem is not the hill. What’s slowing Johnson down this weekend afternoon is a 10-foot trailer full of lawn-mowing equipment.
HOW IT WORKS: The basic design hasn’t changed since it was first invented in the early 1900s. The heart of the machine is a set of three to five blades wrapped around a rotating shaft, which is attached to the wheels by a simple set of gears. As the wheels turn, the blades spin, scissoring the grass against a fixed horizontal blade set at the desired cutting height.
PROS: The sound it produces is similar to the snipping of a pair of scissors. The cut is cleaner, whereas gas-powered machines can tear grass. In addition, it’s human-powered, so it produces zero emissions and affords the operator a little exercise. Current models use plastics and alloys that make them lighter and easier to use than the clunky metal models of the past. They generally cost less than $150.
CONS: Many reviewers say they’re not suitable for lawns larger than half an acre because of the extra manpower required. And unlike gas-powered machines, Reel Mowers cannot handle sticks or excessive leaves. With the wheels outside of the spinning blades, it’s more difficult to cut edges, so trimming requires extra attention. The Reel Mower also has trouble with overgrown grass, so users need to stick to a regular mowing schedule.
Johnson is the owner of Green Team Lawn Care, a new service in Columbia that uses not one drop of fossil fuels by relying on manpower instead of horsepower. He rides his bike to every job, pulling equipment that recalls a time when motorized mowers were little more than a suburban daydream.
“You do that two or three days in a row and your legs start to get a little tired,” said Johnson, 28. “But even on the longest, hardest ride, I still like it a thousand times better than a car.”
Johnson doesn’t even own an automobile. He sold his truck last year because he and his wife, Dia, were using it only about once a month. He put pen to paper and realized they could actually save money by renting a car if they needed one. “Plus, we get to drive a clean, new car when we do drive,” he said. Those times are exceedingly rare.
But Johnson’s not a rigid environmentalist who shuns automobiles on moral principle.
“This is just the way I want to live my life,” he said. “I’m not really that involved (in environmentalism), though it seems like I might be. I just like getting out here and getting sweaty, getting the job done.”
Johnson describes himself as a pragmatist with an entrepreneurial spirit. He believes bicycles are a sensible solution to everyday problems such as traffic congestion and high gas prices. Plus, he’s able to turn a profit by avoiding overhead expenses; his man-powered lawn mower cost less than $150, and he doesn’t need an expensive truck to haul it.
Johnson charges about $30 to mow a small residential lot, which is comparable to what other lawn care services charge in Columbia.
In addition to his lawn care business, Johnson works full-time educating Columbia residents on how they can spend more time on bikes and less time in automobiles. He’s employed by the PedNet Coalition, a local pedestrian advocacy group, and is contracted by the city of Columbia as part of the GetAbout Columbia program, which encourages residents to walk or bike when possible.
Johnson said he first considered starting a “green” lawn care business three years ago, but it wasn’t until this February that he put the wheels in motion. His wife is attending MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and he said he’s trying to avoid going too far into debt.
Johnson now has 14 clients, and said he’d like to one day have as many as 20. He said that seven lawns are the most he has cut in one day. It took him nine hours, including travel time. Getting from point A to point B is the hard part, he said.
“When you stop pulling the trailer and start cutting the lawn, it’s a restful time,” he said. “It takes me about an hour for an average lawn, but there are no average lawns.”
For the traditional lawn services in mid-Missouri — those with trucks and trailers full of gas-powered mowers and trimmers — time is money, and spending an hour on each yard is a bleak business plan.
The city of Columbia has active business licenses for approximately 110 lawn maintenance companies.
Bill McWilliams, owner of Columbia Turf, one of the area’s largest lawn maintenance companies, said he’s currently running a residential crew that cuts 28 to 30 yards per day. The crew comprises a truck full of employees, a sprawling trailer and an assortment of commercial mowers, trimmers and blowers.
McWilliams said during the height of the lawn-cutting season, his trucks and equipment use 800 to 900 gallons of gasoline per week.
McWilliams said Columbia Turf competes with five to 10 other traditional lawn care companies in the Columbia area for large commercial contracts, which make up about 90 percent of his total business. He said most residential work goes to smaller contractors, including just about anyone who has the right equipment and the means to transport it.
“Every time you see a pickup, you see a trailer behind it,” he said.
One of those pickups belongs to Jacob Turner, the owner and operator of Natural Elements, which has 10 contracts in the Columbia area. Turner launched his company in July 2007 and is trying to fill a market niche somewhere between Columbia Turf and Green Team Lawn Care.
His pickup truck and one of his mowers runs on biodiesel, an organic fuel source that can be distilled from cooking oils. His other mower runs on propane. Turner said he personally converted his equipment to accept alternative fuel sources by ordering special parts and “setting up the machines pretty much by trial and error.”
“I’m doing the best I can to stay off gasoline,” said Turner, 31, who spent six years working for major contractors in the area before starting his own company. “I think that, in the future, alternative fuel use is going to be a lot more common.”
Perhaps, but for Green Team Lawn Care, the best alternative fuel will continue to be a healthy diet and plenty of sweat equity. It’s more about making the most of a sensible and inexpensive form of transportation than it is about saving the planet, Johnson said.
“I almost feel like people have been tricked into driving,” he said. “You’re raised and hauled around in a car, and when you’re 16 you go and get your driver’s license. I truly believe that if people knew what I knew about bicycling, they would absolutely not drive as much as they do now.”