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Lone Star State is doing more with less, despite ag difficulties

Texas is losing farmland at the rate of 200 acres a day. At the same time, the state’s agricultural population is graying. Drought is a constant worry and an omnipresent threat. Yet the Lone Star State is doing more with less, feeding a growing population and much of the rest of the country via produce grown in the state or in neighboring Mexico and distributed through a vast network that stretches from the heart of the Rio Grande Valley to Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas’s gateway to the rest of America.

DFW-1The Dallas Arboretum boosted pumpkin and gourd producers’ profits with its recent ‘Autumn at the Arboretum’ event which saw the park decked out in an array of brightly colored autumnal produce. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Aboretum)While 1,000 newcomers move to Texas daily, very few are in the produce industry. What is more, those newcomers are taking up residence on land that was formerly devoted to agriculture. Over the next two decades, Texas food producers need to double production merely to keep up with population growth.

“We all know that economic development is great for our state, but the downside for agriculture is that for every thousand people who move to this state, we lose on average, depending on what part of the state you’re in, about 200 acres,” Texas Agricultural Land Trust Executive Director Blair Fitzsimons said in testimony before the state Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee. “At the same time, another three and a half million acres are fragmented, meaning they are chopped into smaller and smaller pieces.”

Ms. Fitzsimons said “84 to 97 percent of [Texas] land [is] privately owned, depending on what study you’re looking at. There has been a lot of talk, thought and action devoted to protecting our energy sources in other parts of the world, but very little to the strategic importance of our food supply.”

Meanwhile, according to the most recent data available, the 2007 U.S. Agricultural Census showed that the average age of a Texas farmer is 59. Farm operators over outnumbered those under age 35 by a six-to-one margin. Just over 900 Texas farmers are under 25 — half the number in 2002. The largest category for Texas farmers by age was 70-and-older, with 57,000 falling in that demographic.

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples has launched programs to assist young farmers entering the industry, something he considers “vital for any Texan who does not want to be dependent on foreign food like we are on foreign oil.”

New state programs will help young farmers defray the costs of starting business, which are increasing annually. According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study, given the rising price of land, equipment, fertilizer, seed and fuel, growers need an asset base of about $2 million to gross $50,000 in farm-to-gate sales.

Texas leads the country in privately-owned lands, according to the recent Texas Land Trends survey from the American Farmland Trust and the Institute for Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR) at Texas A&M University. The survey shows the Lone Star State has 142 million acres of farm, ranch and timberlands, but is losing 1.5 million acres of agricultural land every 10 years.

Meanwhile, growers are doing more with less and countless businesses have sprung up to import and distribute produce from Mexico. Much of that product flows through Dallas before reaching consumers in the rest of the country and Canada.

That opportunity led California-based Green Tree International (GTI) to Dallas in March 2011. With locations throughout California and one in Washington state, Dallas would not seem to be the next stepping stone for expansion. But opportunities in that city are much brighter than elsewhere, according to founding partner Cary Crum.

“We like Dallas as a market because over the last 10-12 years there’ve been a lot of changes going on. Because of the length of transportation a lot of product gets sent into Dallas. So much stuff gets sent there without sales on top of it, it gets a reputation as a soft market,” Mr. Crum said. “But they have a tremendous economy, they’re the center of that region, pretty much everybody brings trucks into Dallas to buy shorts, there is a demand there for wholesale business. There are three terminal markets 1,000 miles away — Atlanta, Los Angeles and St. Louis. All those are in reach of Dallas but there really is not a true terminal market any more down there. It was a fantastic opportunity.