It’s been said, everything’s bigger in Texas. But the urbanization that is exploding in one of Texas’ fastest growing counties, proves bigger isn’t always better, at least not for agriculture.
Williamson County, about 40 miles north of Austin, is among 25 of the fastest growing counties in Texas. Within the 25 counties, from 1997 to 2012, about 590,000 acres have been lost from the agricultural land base, about 1 million statewide, according to Texas Land Trends.
“Williamson County is the poster child for what is happening in many counties in Texas,” says Dr. Roel Lopez, director for the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute (NRI). “What happens is in counties outside of these urban centers, there’s a pressure to develop those properties. It’s hard to keep those properties in production because of the rising land market values.”
The counties of Travis, Hays and Williamson, along the IH 35 corridor, have the strongest urban concentration of the nine-county area surrounding Austin, according to the 2017 Texas Rural Land Value Trends report.
Texas is home to 171 million acres of land, of which 83 percent or 142 million acres are farm, ranch and family forest. “Texas is surprisingly still very rural but what we are going to see, in terms of projections in the future, is the population is going to nearly double,” says Lopez. “There’s a shift between urban and rural; about 85 percent of Texans live in an urban center and so that results in a small voice for rural Texas.”
Infrastructure within rural Texas is often thought of as roads, bridges and buildings. And while those are important, Lopez says, from a rural community perspective, land is infrastructure: a farm or ranch or family forest. According to a survey conducted by the NRI, the top concern for county leaders when it comes to land conversion or acres taken out of production and converted to urban areas, is land fragmentation, says Lopez. “So, the conservation or preservation of those lands is a big issue.”
The process of conversion begins with economic growth, which leads to population growth and increased demand for rural land which in turn increases land values, creates incentives to subdivide or sell, and eventually the fragmentation of working lands, explains Lopez.
“Market value is a big driver for how much we’ve lost in terms of conversion,” says Lopez. “These row crop farmers’ biggest challenge is, how do you stay in business when you’ve got this Tsunami looming over you?”
Gathered around a table in Williamson County at the Stiles Farm, sits Ryan Collett, Stiles Farm manager, and two sets of brothers and farming partners Anthony and Adam Gola and Clayton and Ken Seggern. As they sit and reflect on the 2018 crop year, riddled with drought, high temperatures and low commodity prices, they testify to the growing pains of urban sprawl in Williamson County.
“What’s difficult is a lot of these people who are moving here are coming from the big cities and don’t understand what agriculture is and what we do day-to-day to accomplish our tasks,” says Clayton.
“We tried to hire a plane several times this year to spray our crops but couldn’t get one,” says Adam. “They won’t fly over here — it’s too populated.”
Crash hazards and drift concerns prevent the pilots from flying the fields, says Anthony.
“And every time a plane does fly, somebody gets 15 phone calls, ‘Why are they flying over my house?’ says Adam. “They’re not hurting anything, but people get upset.”
In addition to farming, Adam and Anthony own a custom spray application business. According to Anthony, even when they spray their own fields themselves, people will stop. “If the farmer is on the edge of the field, they’ll pull over and ask, ‘What are you doing? What are you spraying?’”
Clayton says on acres he is still farming but have been sold for smaller tracts, “You’ll start fertilizing and they’ll walk out there and try to stop you. They see liquid coming out the end of the boom and think it’s terrible stuff that we’re doing to the land, when all we’re trying to do is put out fertilizer for our crop to grow so we can feed and clothe them.”
Another challenge is the price of land in Williamson County. “There are realtors buying these 100-acre farms and then selling them in 10-acre tracts, probably buying these farms for $5,000, $6,000 an acre and then selling them at a higher price for a 10-acre tract,” says Ken, making it difficult for row crop farmers to afford to purchase land for production.
Renting land has become difficult as well. Rather than the traditional share-crop lease, where the landowner and the renter share some of the risk, there has been a shift to cash leases, guaranteeing the landowner a certain amount, no matter what type of year the grower has. “They don’t want to be involved in the risk of if you make a good crop this year and next year it fails. They want a guaranteed income, which I understand, but we can’t guarantee income year to year. There’s some land that’s being let go because people are wanting $85 to $90-acre cash lease.
“When they go to work, they know what they are going to get paid and they want the same thing off their land. But so much of farming is out of our control.”
According to the Texas NRI, in 2015, small parcels of land in the Austin-Hill Country area with 95 acres or less, sold for about $4,000 per acre, while larger land areas, more than 280 acres, sold for about $3,000 per acre.
“The reason they subdivide these tracts is because you can increase the value on a per acre basis,” says Lopez. “In Williamson County, you could probably sell some of those properties at $30,000/acre. So how do you compete with that? That’s the primary issue.”
Closing the gap
To help close the gap between the urban population and agriculture, the Stiles Farm Foundation offers tours. The Stiles Farm is a farm managed by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service as a living demonstration of research-based, profitable and environmentally sustainable agricultural practices for the Texas Blackland Prairies.
This summer high school teachers visited the farm, which allowed Collett and others to clarify some misconceptions about the family farm.
“There is this sense, farmers are working for these giant corporate farms, and all they want is to take from the land and make as much money as they can,” describes Collett. “We tried to impress upon them this concept, ‘Yes, a farmer needs to make money to support their family like anybody, but if we don’t take good care of the land, it’s not going to continue to take good care of us. You can’t just take. You’ve got to be a good steward of the land, try to get it what it needs to be productive and there’s a lot of risk and money involved in that.
“Public perception is probably one of the most important things we’ve got to combat.”
By 2050, the Office of the State Demographer projects Texas’ population to increase to 41.3 million —a 191-percent increase from the 1980 population of 14.2 million. They report because working land loss is directly related to population growth and associated urban development, future growth in the state will continue to have profound impacts on Texas working lands.