A More Resilient Future for Texas Agriculture
In order to improve the resilience and productivity of agriculture in the United States, we must include the Lone Star State. Quite simply, Texas is one of the most important states for agriculture because it is home to over 14% of the country’s agricultural lands. The diversity of Texas’ agricultural lands and products rivals that of any other state, producing by far more beef cattle, cotton, hay, horses, sheep, and goats.
Unfortunately, due to increasing pressure from urban sprawl, population growth, climate change, water scarcity, and solar energy development, our farms and ranches across Texas are more threatened than ever before. In 2022, AFT’s Farms Under Threat research indicated that Texas has the highest concentration of threatened agricultural land in America – with 2.2 million acres projected to be converted to real estate development by 2040.
This is a critical moment to act. Not only should we be concerned about these tremendous challenges ahead, but we can also feel hopeful that the agricultural and ranching communities can and will play significant roles in providing the solutions we seek for a more resilient future. As the Texas Regional Director for American Farmland Trust, I am developing a program to address these urgent needs in my home state.
My farmland story
My passion for agriculture, ranching, and conservation began growing up in Texas with an enthusiasm for animals and the outdoors. I am a seventh-generation Texan on both sides of the family, with roots in the Hill Country and North Texas. Growing up, we raised and competed with horses, so I spent my time outside working with the horses and animals on our small farm and participating in all the care and hard work that goes into raising animals. We spent the rest of our time enjoying the outdoors, hunting, fishing, hiking, and camping.
I am also a proud graduate of Texas A&M University and went on to do policy work and research on agriculture and soil health issues. Throughout my experiences, I learned repeatedly that healthy soils are the cornerstone of resilient agricultural systems. Eventually, I ran my own farm and horse training facility in Maryland, where I experienced the challenges of being a landowner and the dedication required to run your own operation.
Working closely with my local NRCS agents and the Soil and Water Conservation District, I learned firsthand the difficulty in implementing the sound farming practices that I had taken part in recommending in my previous work. My first experience with land protection was in permanently protecting our farm in Maryland with an agricultural preservation easement to ensure it would remain in agricultural use in perpetuity.
AFT’s vision for Texas
AFT’s approach puts farmers and ranchers first, supporting them as stewards of the land and empowering them as part of the solution to the challenges we face across agriculture. As soon as AFT announced it was expanding its regional programs into Texas, I knew that this was the next step for me.
It is both an honor and quite humbling to work with so many partners to address the Texas-sized challenges we are facing to ensure our agricultural communities and the lands they steward are ecologically and economically resilient across the state.
Due to the Inflation Reduction Act, an unprecedented $20 billion in federal dollars is slated to support Farm Bill conservation programs over the next five years. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make change with this influx of federal dollars. Given that Texas’ lands are over 95% privately owned, working directly to support landowners, farmers, and ranchers on their conservation journey with our programs will have the potential to impact Texas agriculture across the state significantly.
Therefore, AFT’s priorities for Texas are centered around improving the resiliency of farmers and ranchers and the land they steward. Initially, we will achieve this through programs that:
- Increase the adoption of conservation practices across Texas by connecting farmers and ranchers to technical and financial assistance, increasing access to USDA programs and services, and working with partners to provide training, outreach, and education opportunities. This includes work to promote practices that protect water quality in the Gulf Coast, supporting NRCS in implementing a USDA Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council (RESTORE) project.
- Establish a regenerative grazing program in Texas with the AFT-led Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities for Carbon-Smart Beef. This will include developing and implementing a regenerative grazing mentoring program that will encourage sharing and learning among Texas ranchers to increase the resilience of grazing lands.
- Advance AFT’s Smart Solar Principles to encourage the use of best practices during solar project development for siting and installation, finding areas for integrating solar and agriculture through agrivoltaics, and supporting landowners by promoting equity and farm viability.
- Accelerate the protection of agricultural land by sharing resources from AFT’s Farms Under Threat research, including special wildlife habitat mapping that identifies high-priority locations for land protection and habitat restoration on agricultural and forested lands.
As we advance these programs and others throughout Texas in the future, a few themes will cross-cut all programs. These include increasing land conservation, focusing on the challenges of water scarcity, improving soil health and resiliency of Texas agriculture, providing targeted outreach to historically underserved producers, such as black, Hispanic, and female producers, and supporting an aging population of farmers and ranchers in the transfer of land to the next generation.
Expanding AFT’s partnerships and working with other organizations will be critical across Texas to support farmers, ranchers, and the lands they steward. Some of our existing partners include USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Service, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute, TAMU Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management, Texas Land Trust Council, Integrity Beef, Noble Research Institute, Partnership for Gulf Coast Land Conservation, and Conservation Science Partners.
Building a Lone Star future
Texans’ pride in their state is famous for a reason. We know that Texas is unique in so many ways, from the people’s hospitality to the diversity of the animals and ecosystems found here. We love our bar-be-que and Tex-Mex, our bluebonnets and wildflower-lined highways, the iconic longhorn, and the diversity of our wildlife like armadillos, roadrunners, horny toads, and pronghorn antelope. We have some of the only habitats in the country for several endangered species, including the ocelot, whooping crane, and the golden-cheeked warbler. The state provides an essential habitat for hundreds of migratory birds and monarch butterflies and is home to the largest bat colony in the world.
Our vast agricultural and ranching landscapes are equally diverse with the citrus groves of the Rio Grande Valley, rice in the Gulf Coastal Prairie, timber from the Piney Woods of east Texas, sorghum in the panhandle, cattle in almost every county across the state, and my personal favorites Hill Country pecans and Fredericksburg peaches. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to care for the expansive finite resources that we have available so that the next generation of Texans may continue to steward our farms and ranches in a more resilient future.