Irrigation education

January 20, 2011
Lindsey Getz

Over the years, Todd Magatagan has become a real leader in his home state of Texas. Newly elected to the Irrigation Association (IA) Board of Directors, the position is not Magatagan’s first time in a leadership role. He’s also the past president of both the Texas Turf Irrigation Association and the East Texas Irrigation Association, and is a chair of the IA’s Ambassador Program. And as the owner of The Woodlands-based Around the Grounds, he’s also someone who really understands the goals – and the struggles – of the small business owner.

Magatagan has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, and, even since his younger days, he’s been inclined to get his hands dirty. “As a child, I started mowing yards at just 12 years old,” he says. “I always leaned toward work in the landscape business or construction. Stocking shelves just wasn’t the job for me, and since 12 years old, I’ve been doing this kind of work in some form or another. I’ve worked for golf courses, owned my own maintenance business, been in construction, and done irrigation. Today my business is a configuration of contracting, consulting and project management.”

Despite a nationwide downturn in the economy, Magatagan has managed to not only stay afloat but to continue being profitable. He says that being based in Texas is certainly a factor in surviving these tough times. “Our local economy has been fairly resilient,” he says. “Energy – a strong oil and gas industry – has a lot to do with that, as do lower taxes. This is a business-friendly climate – something that’s not true in other states.”

While location may be a factor, it’s also Around the Grounds’ customer service that’s keeping them successful. What does he do differently than other businesses? “I educate my customers,” he says. “That empowers them to make their own decisions, and that’s important to people. I also follow through with what I say I’m going to do. That may seem simple, but it goes a long way.”

More than Glue

Now on the IA Board of Directors, Magatagan first got involved with the organization in 1998 when he signed up for classes. “I had recently gotten my irrigation license and thought ‘I’m a licensed irrigator now. I know what I’m doing,’” he says. “Well, I walked into a few IA classes and was blown away. I realized then that it’s a lot more than gluing pipes. They were deep into calculus and formulas. I was intrigued and wanted to get more involved. And I really started to understand the value of education.”

As Magatagan became more involved with the IA, he also became engaged with Texas politics. He recognized that the journey toward getting necessary irrigation certifications was a difficult one in Texas due to a lack of classes. He helped facilitate changes that would offer contractors more education opportunities.

In addition, Magatagan says that his past experience with contracting has helped him really understand the hurdles and obstacles that contractors have to deal with. “I’ve always taken a position of supporting the contractor end of this industry in both promoting education to help contractors better themselves, and to defend the free enterprise aspect of being a small businessman. In taking this position, I have pledged to represent the irrigators and to defend their points of view. And that’s really my main objective of being on this board – to keep maintaining the best interests of the small businessman.”

Confronting Challenges

One of the biggest challenges that these business owners face today, Magatagan says, is increasing regulation. “There’s a movement to regulate our industry heavily and that can be tough for the small business owner,” he says. “I believe regulations are important but I also believe in moderation. That’s another thing that I’ll work towards.”

Magatagan says that labor issues also pose a challenge, particularly in states like Texas that are embroiled in the immigration debate. “Texas is a strange dichotomy,” he says. “On one side of the coin, you have conservative businessmen with that ‘send them back’ mentality. On the other side, you have conservative businessmen, especially in the green industry, who say they absolutely couldn’t run their business without the help of hardworking immigrants. There’s no doubt that the irrigation industry is highly labor-intensive and it can be difficult to find young people who want to really get their hands dirty. The new generation just doesn’t want labor-intensive jobs. Finding the solution to these issues is not going to be simple.”

Another issue that Magatagan hopes to tackle is a lack of enforcement of licensing and certification. It’s an issue that many others in the industry, not just in Texas, are facing. “In Texas we have an irrigation license and a very specific set of rules accompanying it,” says Magatagan, who has several certifications, including being a Texas Licensed Irrigator, and is an EPA WaterSense Partner. “Unfortunately, this has very little benefit to the industry because there is no adequate program to pursue unlicensed individuals. Instead, the licensed irrigators just get more heavily regulated. I was told by the state that the way they look at it is if you go get your license, you’re basically volunteering to be regulated.”

Magatagan says he still believes in pursuing a license, but would like to see a license have more value. “Right now being licensed really does nothing to promote my business,” he says. “And nobody ever asks to see it. If Texas were to get rid of the irrigation license, it would not affect my business in any way. That’s something I’d like to see changed. A vigorous enforcement program that pursues unlicensed individuals would give the license more value.”

But perhaps the biggest issue that Magatagan says he and the industry face is the price of water. “It has no value because it’s been subsidized for centuries and they take it for granted,” he says. “And because they don’t value water, they don’t place value on the services of an irrigator or the maintenance of their system. All of that causes my industry to struggle to make a profit.”

Recently, Magatagan says he’s seen some progress toward change, but is discouraged that it seems to be the result of the cost rising as a form of regulation – not a form of free enterprise. “I’m a strong advocate of sub-metering landscape irrigation water,” says Magatagan. “I do not believe in tiered irrigation pricing. I believe in a flat fee across the board for landscape irrigation water, regardless of the size of the property. I think that will bring a reduction in demand and an overall healthier irrigation industry. My hope is that we can at least start to move in the right direction.

Better understanding the value of water, and the importance of irrigation, could drastically change the industry. Magatagan says that for his landscape management business, irrigation is by far his biggest tool for success. Why? “Water is one of the few landscaping elements that contractors have actual control over,” he says. “We can’t control the sun, but we can control fertility through water. In the end, it all circles back to better education. That’s the solution.”


This is one of three stories that ran in Lawn & Landscape's Water Works e-newsletter. To continue reading about Tom Magatagan:

A better understanding: Irrigation contractors can find success in education.

Tips for success: The three elements contractors can't forget when running their business.