Conservation Experts in Drought-Addled California

Harvest Landscape Enterprises
Written by Mark Golombek

Harvest Landscape Enterprises is based in Orange County, California. Currently, the state is dealing with one of the worst droughts in its history, and there are no signs of immediate relief. Surprisingly, water is not a free good – it is actually quite expensive – and the current conditions in California have led to an acute awareness of water management challenges…
This makes for a precarious existence for landscaping companies. However, Harvest has been ahead of the game for some time and has measures in place that use a vast array of technologies to ensure that it is doing its part to conserve water. We spoke with Chief Executive Officer and President Steven Schinhofen to learn more.

Steven Schinhofen was born into the landscaping business. His grandfather had a company called Bandy Landscaping which started in 1963, and Steven’s father worked for him until 1983, when he began his company called SS&K Landscaping. Steven worked for his father straight out of high school during summers and then began Harvest in 2003, at the age of twenty-two. Later, in 2006, he purchased both his father’s and grandfather’s assets in their respective companies, before dissolving the corporations.

“Both my father and grandfather were worker bees. My grandfather was the cowboy type – a typical gardener with his crews. My dad was similar in that manner. I went to school for business, so I had that background. Started by working in the fields, doing everything from mowing lawns to digging ditches. I realized that I could only go so far working for my dad, so I started Harvest,” says Steven. His father wanted to be a minister and so left the landscaping business, but it was not long before he got that urge to rejoin his son. His father presently acts as a fleet manager.

In Orange County, there are many landscapers, so the competition in this sector is intense. However, Steven grew up being well aware of how the industry runs and sees it as rather antiquated and lacking innovation. Steven had the intent to do things differently. He supported an environmental focus, with water conservation and proper maintenance techniques as being core to his approach.

“I saw this as the wave of the future and built my business on this platform, avoiding the old-school methods. In California, we jumped on this curve of water conservation before it became trendy,” says Steven. Harvest tested smart controllers for irrigation systems and was training its staff even before a rebate system was initialized by the state. Business accelerated dramatically after this.

Harvest’s growth is due in large part to its attitude being different from those of other companies. When smart controllers and water conservation came on the scene to address the droughts that increasingly plague California, most big landscaping companies were naysayers. Steven was preaching that conservation does work and showed everyone how and why.

“Customers were coming to me because we were the only ones supporting and proving that it worked. We gobbled up a lot of business from the bigger companies like Brickman’s [now rebranded as BrightView]. They may be corporate wise, and their PR was touting that they were smart, but their guys in the field really knew nothing,” explains Steven.

When smart controls became a requirement for irrigation systems, the units had to be installed and needed the expertise of someone who knew how to use them. These bigger companies then came to Harvest for help as it was the known expert.

Harvest trains differently than other companies; everything it does is technology-based. Employees use the company’s unique iPhone app, which helps with real-time reports and has GPS coordinates of valves and trees to aid in location when it is time to make repairs. Harvest is technologically far ahead of everybody in the industry, especially in California.

In California, there is pressure to keep landscaping healthy and green, no matter what it takes. In the past, the standard practice was just to flood everything with no control of water usage. There was also virtually no education about the need for conservation, so over-usage was rampant. Then, in 1961, the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) was created. It provides domestic water service, sewage collection and water reclamation and regulates water use.

In early 1991, the IRWD implemented a tiered water structure which holds customers accountable by including penalties if too much water was used. “That is what really started an evolution in Orange County. The mythology has always been to flood irrigate. The customer had the biggest push behind this because everything had to be green constantly,” says Steven.

Steven is not out to be a big player in the industry and is not interested in chasing work. He wants to represent work that means something. The goal is to get a client and keep them forever. Harvest attempts to find a complete solution for its customers. It wants to provide all the services that the client needs to maintain their landscape from tree and landscape management to water management and irrigation.

“We are there to take care of their full needs. Our design architects are on the case. The goal is to meet a client and have a long sustainable relationship with them because that is the only way we can fully do our job. We don’t just come in, mow lawns and leave,” emphasizes Steven.

Most of the employees’ skills are developed in-house. People with an interest in being an arborist are trained and educated in-house. The training and development programs take advantage of organizations such as The International Society of Arboriculture, along with other local training companies.

Steven explains that better results are attained by avoiding people who are already arborists from other companies. “If you hire from another company, you just get their bad habits. This is who we are, and we are different. We are not like them. In Orange County, we are the biggest company, and a lot of owners are scared of us because we are the mavericks. We don’t go by their rules,” Steven says emphatically. Harvest, however, is very much in favour of abiding by rules and regulations where most companies try to skirt them, and water conservation is a good example of this.

Harvest is not conserving water because it is told to do it; it does it because it is the right thing to do, and the company has stuck to this philosophy for the past ten years. Steven truly believes that it is better for the landscape, better for the industry and better for the environment.

Steven says that, when it comes to water management, the right technology has been developed to use the resource based on science. The old way was based on estimates of how much water plants need. Science, however, has shown us each plant species’ requirements.

“We have been given the tools to – more or less – manage irrigation systems and taken it to a science. From there you can better organize your landscape. You can see this within a lot of older properties. When flood irrigation was popular, you would have turf that is on the same hydro zone as shrubs. You are over watering one or under watering another. Now, with technology, we are able to isolate things and become more precise,” says Steven.

For Harvest, growth is something that Steven believes in, but it is inextricably tied to his ability to encourage, develop and see people better themselves in this career and industry. Harvest has grown at a rapid pace, amongst the fastest in the area but its investment in education and training has become an integral part of its culture.

“Our people become a priority over our clients. I could lose one client, but if I lose a really good employee, I could lose five clients. I am not undermining clients, but my employees are more valuable, because I know that my employees are going to take care of my clients,” explains Steven.

Harvest Landscape Enterprises, Inc. does not want to be like everyone else. It aims to be an industry-changing company that adopts innovative approaches to fulfill clients needs while also supporting conservation efforts and developing its employees.

“We want employees to fall in love with being landscapers and not just doing it because it’s a job – to take all the elements of it and provide a service, to be different than what is out there.”



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