MEREDITH — You don’t get into Dan Harris’s line of work without a particular inclination.
“You have to have a passion for this,” he said. “It’s just soil and grass.”
In his case, that interest was apparent at an early age. As soon as he legally could, Harris, a native of Meredith, was working on the ground crew at Waukewan Golf Club in Center Harbor. After he graduated from Inter-Lakes High School, he earned an associate’s degree in turf management from North Carolina State University, then a bachelor’s in horticulture and agronomy from UNH.
“I thought I was going to school to become a superintendent of a golf course,” he said. Instead, he ended up putting his education to use on residential lawns, with RealGreen Services, a company which has evolved with Harris’s philosophies about lawn care.
While he was at UNH, he got to spend time with Audra, a woman who also grew up in Meredith but was one grade behind Dan. They didn’t have reason to mingle while at Inter-Lakes, but had a lot of mutual friends in Durham. They married in 1999, and in 2000, they started RealGreen.
Audra is a co-owner of the company, though she leaves the operation to Harris. Instead, she works at a biotechnology manufacturer in the Seacoast, where, said Harris, “She uses words I don’t understand.” Dan and Audra live in Center Harbor where they raise three daughters, ages 7 to 15.
When Harris started his company, he thought he would spend his days giving clients fairway-quality grass in their front yards. And for a while, that’s what he did.
“When I came out of the golf course industry, it was getting a customer, greening their lawn, and moving on.” He knew how to make that happen, just spread the right mix of weed killer and fertilizer. As he worked, though, he also thought. And his thoughts turned to what those chemicals were doing when the rain washed it off the lawn and into a nearby stream. His business practiced changed.
Now, he tells his customers, “If you want a perfect, weed-free lawn, I’m not your guy.” He now uses naturally-occurring materials which won’t threaten the health of the region’s pized assets: “All the lakes, all the water around us. There’s a reason people want to live up here.”
RealGreen went through another evolution after the recession of 2008. Harris used to employ a handful of workers, now he has cut that in about half. He no longer offers mowing or other landscaping services, instead he has clients that he visits once a month for aeration and turf treatments.
“I have downsized,” he said. “You need a lot of work, and you need to be constantly chasing work, when you have that many employees.”
He would like to transition RealGreen yet again, and take it from a service-oriented business to a consult and supply model. He’s like to see his business, located on Route 3 near the Center Harbor town line, become a destination and a resource for property owners looking to improve their lawns. His plan is to have homeowners come in with a sample of their soil, which he will have tested, and for which he will write a treatment plan. He would then sell the material they would need to apply to their lawn, and would rent out any necessary equipment.
“I’ll give you my knowledge, let’s work together,” he said. “I’m always trying to evolve, and I’m trying to do it without a lot of labor.”
Meanwhile, he has seen the winter side of his business grow. Shortly after he opened RealGreen, he bought into Ice B’Gone Magic, a high-performing ice melt product, marketed to both commercial applicators and residential consumers. He owns a franchise, which gives him the exclusive right to sell Ice B’Gone to all of New Hampshire north of Exit 18 on Route 93.
“When I first bought the franchise, I couldn’t give this stuff away,” he said. Now, though, he has a hard time keeping up with the stream of contractors who come after every snowfall so they can treat their clients’ driveways and parking lots.
“Our salt season is about to start, which is total mayhem,” he said.
Harris was enamored of North Carolina when he first went away. But when it got hot, he thought of the cool waters of home.
“Like a lot of high school kids when you graduate, you’re like, ‘I want to get out of here!’” Soon, though, “I realized how great our area is. And the heat, it was brutal. That definitely played a part in wanting to come back. And family, my whole family is here.”
Coming back home has also allowed him to go bird and deer hunting in the same fields and woods where he learned to hunt with his father. Those are treasured memories for him.
“You have to move away to realize how great of an area you are in,” he said.