Dr. Jim Watson, chief agronomist for The Toro Company for 40 years, sees challenges ahead, but also continued growth
Dr. Jim Watson, now 90, is enjoying his retirement with his wife of 67 years, Audrey, in Colorado.
PHOTO COURTESY OF CHUCK MONTERA.
When Dr. Jim Watson looks to the future of the turf industry, he sees quite a different picture than what’s apparent today.
So what, you might ask? Who is Jim Watson, and why do his insights matter more than those of anyone else?
You have a right to ask those questions. Indeed, it’s been more than a few years since Doc Watson was out and about sharing his half-century-plus wealth of knowledge about turfgrass and its care.
Those who have been in the industry for a decade or more realize that there are few turfgrass products or practices that Watson hasn’t put into practice or influenced over the span of his career. Now 90 and living in retirement in Colorado, Watson is one of the founding fathers of today’s turfgrass industry, having watched it grow from its infancy and working tirelessly on its behalf until retiring two years ago.
The first person in the nation to receive a Ph.D. from Penn State in turfgrass management, he spent most of his time in the industry – 45 years – as the chief agronomist for Toro.
A different career path
Strangely, Watson never intended on a career in turfgrass management. He served in the U.S. Air Force in World War II as a bombardier on a B-17, flying 14 missions over Germany until he was severely injured, spending 15 months in a hospital.
After the war, he went to Texas A&M and received his bachelor’s degree. One of his professors told him the university would be hosting a turfgrass conference and asked Watson to operate the slide projector during the conference. He then asked Watson to send a telegram to Penn State, giving Watson a folded-up piece of paper. When Watson went to send the telegraph, he opened it up to start translating it for transmittal and it said that Watson had accepted a fellowship at Penn State and would arrive for the spring semester.
“That’s how I got into the business. I didn’t even have time to tell my wife,” recalls Watson. “Next thing I know, we were going to Penn State.”
One of his professors at Penn State encouraged him to get a Ph.D. in turfgrass management. Watson didn’t know much about the industry, so he read all the books he could find on turfgrass.
After earning his Ph.D., he returned to Texas A&M to teach. While there, the university welcomed visitors from Toro, which was supplying the university with research materials. Watson was invited to meet with them, and the sales manager asked Watson if he’d be interested in a job as an agronomist. He took the job and stayed for more than four decades.
Dr. Watson started his career at Texas A&M as an educator, a role he relished even as he later served as an agronomist for Toro.
Watson’s take on the industry’s future
- It will have to make significant adjustments due to water shortages.
- There will be decreased use of traditional fertilizers because of pollution and runoff concerns, but also because of cost. The use of organic material to enrich soils and keep plants healthy will increase.
- Expect ongoing introduction of new labor-saving equipment and improvements to the equipment most of us now use.
- Breeders will continue to produce turfgrass and other landscape plants that are better able to remain healthy and attractive using less water and fewer chemical inputs.
- The anomosity of landscape and lawn service industry pros to artificial turf will lessen as they begin to appreciate its attractiveness and utility for many landscape applications.
Watson now lives in an apartment in Colorado overlooking an artificial turf putting green, a sign of just how much things have changed since he entered the industry in 1950. Looking back over his career, there have been many highlights.
“From 1982 to just a few years ago, when I got to the point where I couldn’t travel too well, I served on the United States Golf Association’s research and environmental committee. We supported research in 27 different universities. I’m proud of that role. I was proud of the role I served at Toro, which is a very good company to work for,” says Watson.
That job afforded him the opportunity to work on golf course and professional football and baseball fields around the world. He traveled throughout Europe, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan and China.
One of his greatest disappointments, he says, was when he went to England many years ago, anticipating seeing the English turf of which he had heard so much.
“I visited several different homes, large castles and parks, and the turf was terrible. It was weedy and much taller than what I had been accustomed to in the United States, and I was disappointed in it,” he recalls, quickly adding that things have since changed there.
As one of the founders of the International Turfgrass Society, he and turfgrass experts from other countries began exchanging ideas and practices. The positive results soon became apparent worldwide.
England established a research institute that helped golf courses “a great deal,” Watson says. The English now insist on high-quality turfgrass for their golf courses, sports fields and lawns. Similarly focused turfgrass research facilities in Australia and New Zealand have improved the grasses in those countries as well, he says.
“I have seen the industry grow. Today, it consistently provides very reliable grasses for golf courses, sports fields and for landscaping purposes,” Watson notes, adding that even homeowners now expect to see their properties covered in fine, weed-free turfgrass.
As Toro’s longtime agronomist, Dr. Watson traveled the United States and overseas, working with other researchers to develop better turfgrass management strategies and more efficient products.
Challenges of the industry
But the turfgrass industry faces some big challenges, he acknowledges.
“I think the problem facing all landscaping and golf courses is water. As our population increases, I look for many of our turf areas to just have to give up because they won’t be able to get water. And there’s the municipal uproar caused by a lot of so-called environmentalists over the use of pesticides.”
While Watson says he does believe that water shortages are a real issue impacting the industry, he doesn’t feel so strongly about the idea of climate change. “The eastern part of this country this year has suffered tremendous snowfalls, ice, cold and everything else,” he says. “I suspect those people are believing in the approach of an ice age.”
Artificial turf continues to make inroads into the natural grass area and may continue to do so because of water shortages, he says. That’s unfortunate, says Watson, who remains convinced that turfgrass is a far superior sports or landscape surface over synthetic turf.
“The only place it [artificial turf] hasn’t really taken off is on the golf courses,” he says. “It’s not as desirable a playing surface as actual grass is. Will it survive to the exclusion of turf? There’s a possibility. It doesn’t have to have water. I think there’s a place for artificial turf, but I prefer natural grass. It has many advantages over the artificial.”
In the many years he’s been in the industry, Watson has seen the U.S. economy go up and go down many times. He admits today’s economy looks bleak, but individuals or companies offering turfgrass services can still prosper if they have a commitment to service, technical knowledge and systems that allow them to work efficiently.
Watson acknowledges that there are many fly-by-nighters, but he doesn’t believe they’ll be able to sustain their businesses.
“The fly-by-nighters who are in the industry are just looking for a quick buck,” he says. “They undercut the people who know the business and who understand it. With the increasing water shortages and eliminating the use of many pesticides and fertilizers, you’re going to see the fly-by-nighters disappear in the long term. The people that know what they’re doing just have to keep going.”
Turfgrass and climate
As for the challenges those in the landscape industry face, Watson says turf performance centers primarily on the climate.
“We divide turfgrasses into cool-season and warm-season types,” he says. “In the United States in the area of Kansas City to Washington, D.C., we call the intermediate area, most grasses grow there very well,” he says. “Sometimes the winters are heavier and warm-season grasses get killed, sometimes the summers are hard and the cool-season grasses are killed.”
Watson notes that many landscape contractors are now using zoysiagrass. “That tends to be more heat resistant than other grasses,” he says. “The industry has done a wonderful job of developing grasses that fit each climatic area.
“Soil is a major factor, but I don’t worry too much about it,” Watson says “I worry more about the climate and knowing the climatic conditions that exist in any part of the world, which is easy to find out.”
Watson says after all of the years he’s spent in the industry, “There are a lot of advances that have been made in landscaping and on golf courses. I am truly amazed at the advances the industry has made. I think it’s all for the good.
Advancements in the industry
Watson also praises advancements he’s seen in equipment. “I’m proud to say that Toro is one of the leaders in the advancement,” he says. “I’ve seen equipment become more and more efficient, doing more cuts per day than it did in 1950.” Incredible advances have also been made in turf aeration and soil cultivation, he says.
Beyond turfgrass management itself, the landscape industry has expanded into many other services, such as landscape and holiday lighting, he points out.
“Many landscapers make extra money installing the lights,” he says. “It’s a fairly large business in the area. I look forward to seeing new developments in each of these areas.” Indeed, he sees no end to the industry’s efforts to develop new techiques, equipment and products, including chemical products, although the use of some chemical products will change.
Watson looks for a decrease in fertilization and a development or use of organic nutritional materials because of price.
“Fertilizers are almost prohibitively expensive,” he says. “We won’t run out of lime – we have many areas with limestone. And we can artificially make nitrogen, but a lot of phosphate mines are beginning to run out in some parts of the world.”
Looking ahead, he sees water conservation taking a prominent role in turf maintenance. Because of this, turfgrass researchers are accelerating efforts to develop grasses that require less water or water of lower quality to remain healthy and green.
“At Colorado State University, they are doing research with inland salt grass,” he says. “It’s highly tolerant of salt and is likely to increase in future use here.
“I look for the industry to continue to advance and hopefully to solve many of the major areas where we’re going to be deficient in materials needed to make grass grow,” he adds.
For now, Watson is enjoying his retirement with his wife of 67 years, Audrey, and their son and daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
None of them followed in his footsteps to go into the turf industry. “They’re all in the finance business,” he says.
Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.