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University specialists say

Land fragmentation threatens legacy LAND FRAGMENTATION - the division of rural lands into smaller parcels that remain in some kind of rural use - is threatening the historic economic foundation of the state - that being that in the past, family-living income has traditionally come from products grown and sold from the state's vast acreage, a group of Texas A&M University land management specialists says in a new publication.

Land fragmentation, they say, may result in rural parcel sizes generally too small to maintain economy of scale for traditional farming, ranching and forestry uses.

The potential impacts of such ownership fragmentation, they contend, include the loss of open space; a localized loss of farm, ranch and forest production; the higher demand for public services from rural areas; and a reduction in effective wildlife habitats.

Most important, point out publication authors, is that most of the current decline in parcel size is being caused by "urban consumers" who are buying up land for the rural lifestyle they seek - and a more simple way of life than is found in the cities today. Consequently, rural land prices are increasing at the very same time that the market prices of cotton, grain, hay, livestock and other commodities from the land are on the decline.

The publication cites unpublished 1998 data from the Comptroller's Office, Austin, that found that average appraisals of "agricultural productivity values" were approximately 16 percent of the appraised "market value" of the land. The market value of the state's 144 million acres of considered agricultural land was valued at $519 per acre that year, while the ag productivity value was placed at $38.

The highest productivity value was $229 an acre for irrigated cropland; the lowest, $23, for what was clased as barren/wasteland. There were no "benchmark" figures available from past years.

The publication is entitled Land Fragmentation - Changing Land Owner-ship in Texas and was prepared by experts from the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, the Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management, and the Texas A&M Real Estate Research Center.

The authors point out that its vast land resources is "Texas' legacy" and continuing fragmentation of ownership is threatening that legacy. The brochure seeks to provide information that could help people make decisions on the trend's potential importance on rural communities and natural resources - "upon which our waters, wildlife habitats and agricultural economies are based."

Financial stress, estate settlement, retirement, age or health, and the fear of further market decline (in land and commodity values) are listed as the reasons landowners are selling their property today. Financial stress and estate settlement each accounted for 35 to 40 percent of all land-selling motives in the fall of 1999, according to the real estate research center.

Among land purchasers, however, 40 percent-plus cited recreation as their primary reason for making purchases. Between 8 and 9 percent said "investment purposes" was their primary motivation.

Since 1994, consumers have dominated state land purchases within Texas, compared to farmers and ranchers being the dominant buyers prior to that date. Using USDA statistics, the publication notes that about 80 percent of Texas' farms and ranches are less than 500 acres in size, far less than is considered an economic unit.

"Texas is losing its farms and ranches, those between 500 and 2,000 acres in size. These mid-size operations are the state's bread-and-butter for significant agricultural production." But landowner numbers are actually increasing statewide.

The most current trend in land desirability (by consumers), it has been found, seems to be influences more by ecological region. "More people are buying land for its beauty and recreation value, including proximity to trees, water, rolling hills and to wildlife. The desire for land for a variety of purposes is the strongest near the state's three urban centers.

The median price of rural lands in Texas increased by nearly 35 percent from 1992 and 1997, according to the Comptroller's Office. "Prices tended to be higher in the eastern half of the state and peaked in those areas closest to major metropolitan areas.

"However, during this same period, most traditionaltional agricultural ventures have become less profitable. As a result, there is a growing disparity between market values and agricultural productivity values."

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