Texas is home to over 142 million acres of private farms, ranches and forestlands, thus leading the nation in land area devoted to privately-owned working lands. Accounting for 84 percent of the state, these rural lands provide significant economic, environmental and recreational benefits. However, these benefits are quickly disappearing. A recent study conducted by the Institute for Renewable Natural Resources at Texas A&M University for American Farmland Trust reveals that Texas lost 2.1 million acres of farms, ranches and forest land between 1997 and 2007.
Highlights of the 2009 Rural Land Trends study (www.texaslandtrends.org) include:
- Loss of Agricultural Lands: According to accumulated data from county appraisal districts, over 2.1 million acres of farms, ranches and forestlands were converted to other uses during the period from 1997 to 2007. Over 40 percent of this land conversion was related to growth and development associated with population expansion in the state’s
25 highest-growth counties. During this period, 861,765 acres were lost from the agricultural land base in these counties. As a function of population increase, roughly
149 acres of agricultural lands were consumed per 1,000 new residents.
- Ownership size: The 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture accounted for over 247,000 farming and ranching operations in the state. This represents an 8 percent increase since the 1997 Census. In other words, Texas annually gained about 1,900 new working farms and ranches. However, the land base for Texas agriculture decreased by as much as
2 percent during the same period. Average ownership size declined from 585 acres in 1997 to 527 acres in 2007.
- Land use: Native rangeland, with 92.6 million acres, is the predominant category of land use in Texas. Since 1997, native rangeland losses have exceeded 4.8 million acres, while dry (non-irrigated) cropland declined by 1.57 million acres.
- Land values: In 2007, the average appraised market value of farms, ranches and
forest lands in Texas was $1,196 per acre, which is a 140 percent increase over the past ten years.
With the country’s largest percentage of private lands ownership, Texas has a strong tradition of land stewardship, resulting in rich and diverse natural resources, which sustain the state’s economy and enhance quality of life for its citizens. But rapid urbanization and fragmentation threaten Texas’ $73 billion agriculture industry (second largest in the country), its sources of drinking water, and the habitat upon which a $10.9 billion wildlife-recreation industry depends. Moreover, large-scale infrastructure projects are often planned with little analysis of the public costs—economic, social and environmental—of losing vibrant rural lands.
The Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, a statewide Purchase of Development Rights program created in 2005, is a key first step in recognizing public benefits of keeping working land in open space. But for this and other incentive-based conservation programs to effectively provide alternatives to fragmentation and urbanization, there must be a broad-based understanding of the public benefits—such as clean air, clean abundant water, carbon sequestration and others—provided by private lands. Furthermore, Texas policymakers need an objective framework for assessing the conservation values of lands to be impacted by proposed infrastructure projects.
- Provide funding for the Texas Farm & Ranch Lands Conservation Program. Housed at the Texas General Land Office, TFRLCP is a grant-making program that provides landowners with financial incentives to conserve Texas’ natural resources and wildlife habitat through the voluntary sale of either perpetual or term agricultural conservation easements. Conservation easements restrict all future development while allowing the landowner to continue farming or ranching. Funding for TFRLCP would enable Texas to leverage federal funding available for the protection of agricultural lands.
- Continue support for the USDA’s conservation programs, such as the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and the Grasslands Reserve Program. The USDA programs require matching funds. Since 1996, $621,879,425 in FRPP funding, for example, has flowed to states to support agricultural land protection activities. States with well-funded farmland protection programs or sources of matching funds have received a disproportionate share of funding, especially when one considers size. For example, Maryland has received $35,756,912 since 1996; Pennsylvania: $35,244,334; and Vermont: $26,012,012. Texas has received $11,682,987.
- A task force, convened by the Governor, would evaluate the economic, environmental and social impacts of the loss of rural lands, and make recommendations for state policies to address this loss. Through the inclusion of representatives from the Texas Department of Agriculture, Parks and Wildlife, Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Public Utility Commission, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and Texas General Land Office, and agriculture, industry, real estate, rural development and environmental interests, the task force would examine ways to leverage and coordinate existing resources and efforts.
- Appoint an official state “land demographer” who can assist policy makers at the local, county and state levels. Currently, there is no single official source of data and information pertaining to the rural land trends, which leads to duplication of effort among state agencies and, at times, conflicting data. To be housed at the existing Institute for Renewable Natural Resources, a part of Texas A&M’s AgriLife Service, the state land demographer would leverage existing resources by functioning as a clearinghouse for data collected by other agencies, and provide ongoing data, land trends analysis and mapping services to policy makers for cost-benefit analyses of projects affecting rural lands and natural resources. IRNR’s 2009 Texas Rural Land Trends Study, and its 2003 predecessor, would provide the foundation for a state-funded database that would be maintained by the state land demographer.
- Encourage the development of new policy innovations that provide incentives for private landowners to keep working lands in agricultural production. These policy innovations should take advantage of market-based approaches for encouraging watershed management, wildlife habitat conservation, and other ecosystem services from private lands. In addition to conservation easements, programs should be developed that reward landowners for land stewardship practices and activities that provide a direct benefit to the public at-large; for eco-services such as groundwater recharge, carbon sequestration and flood storage that are not currently recognized by traditional markets; and for reducing the need for future costly public infrastructure and services to support new development.
The study updates and expands the 2003 Texas Rural Lands: Trends and Implications for the 21st Century, a landmark study also completed for AFT by Texas A&M.The 2003 study showed that more than 2.2 million acres of rural Texas land were converted to urban uses over a 15-year period, between 1982 and 1997, and the annual rate of conversion was nearly 30 percent higher than in the previous 10 years.
The study was funded in part by The Brown Foundation, Houston Endowment, Inc., Shield-Ayers Foundation, Magnolia Charitable Trust, and The Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation and the members of American Farmland Trust.