Land, water, and all our state's natural resources, are necessary to sustain life. Covering over 130 million acres of land in Texas, our farmers and ranchers are stewards of these resources and need our support to sustain their farms so that future generations will be able to appreciate their value, as well.
The life force for anyone involved in agriculture and consumers alike is water. Texans in most of the state have experienced drought, while others are dealing with the consequences of too much water. TDA can be a strong voice for farmers and ranchers, whose livelihood and ability to provide us with food and fiber depend on this precious resource by advocating for water planning and policies that protect farmers and landowners' rights.
The ability of America to feed itself – to provide a safe, reliable, and domestically controlled food supply – is her strength, but it may be in peril. Over 40 acres of U.S. farm and ranch land are lost every hour. Farms and ranches are not only our source of food, but they represent our rural heritage, provide wildlife habitat, and offer environmental benefits.
Embraces sustainable agriculture, regenerating topsoil and biodiversity, ensures that the current generation's food and fiber needs are met, but it also serves to protect resources and assets for future generations. Regenerative agriculture and climate-smart practices are needed to sustain and grow our $106 billion dollar economy.
The ripple effect concept describes how a single occurrence or situation can multiply and expand, causing waves far from the initial point of contact. There is a finite amount of water on the planet, but it is essential for all life. Even the smallest act can have a serious impact on our water supply - whether it’s turning off the faucet when brushing your teeth to conserve water, or tossing out a plastic bottle that enters the storm drain, is carried by runoff, and ends up as a pollutant in an otherwise pristine stream.
Of course, some actions have massive impacts on water quality and availability, including human consumption, the watering of lawns, and irrigation on farms. And, some actions build over time, with eventual but far-reaching consequences, such as the link between human activity and climate change, resulting in increased flooding, drought, and saltwater intrusion.
Water is undeniably necessary for life, so it only makes sense to protect this precious and limited resource at every opportunity and with all tools available.
Texans in most of the state have experienced drought - some quite severely - while others are dealing with the consequences of too much water, most recently as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Droughts in Texas caused the Rio Grande to stop flowing in 2001, resulting in loss of life. And, during the 2010 – 2011 drought, the driest 12-month period recorded in Texas, agricultural losses were estimated at $5.2 billion.
Contrast that situation with disastrous storms - Hurricane Ike in 2008, which caused 37 fatalities and damages amounting to $14 billion, or Harvey, with agricultural loss estimates at $200 million and rising.
Groundwater also varies throughout the state, with Trinity ranging at a depth of 330 to 1200 feet, the Edwards at a short 55 feet and Ogallala averaging 300 feet below the surface. And our reservoirs fluctuate just as widely, as the Palo Duro Reservoir sits nearly empty at 1.4% of capacity while Lake Texana is nearly full at 95% of its capacity.
These water sources must be adequate to meet the demands. The average single-family household uses 246 gallons of water per day, which equates to about 90 gallons per person (avg. 2.75 persons per household). Households account for about 25% of water use in Texas, manufacturing uses 10%, and the remainder - well over half - is used for agricultural purposes, although total usage has been declining since 2011, while municipal usage is expected to rise with population increases.
Limited supply during increasing demand is not our only concern regarding water in Texas. Contamination in Flint, Michigan may be the most well known cases, but Texas is one of the top three states receiving EPA drinking water violations. Causes range from external contamination from industrial dumping, agricultural runoff, and corroded pipes to naturally occurring chemicals in the soil leaching into water reserves.
Even some consumer practices can contaminate drinking water -- un-metabolized pharmaceuticals in wastewater, household chemicals used for cleaning, and human waste.
The complexity of water issues in Texas requires the full-time attention of an entire state agency to manage it - the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) - plus involvement of other agencies and organizations. To support the water planning effort, TWDB authorizes 98 different regional Groundwater Conservation Districts organized into 16 Groundwater Management Districts, which cover a significant part of the state, but not all. There is also the Edwards Aquifer Authority, regional water planning areas, and many more entities involved.
Of course, The Department of Agriculture (TDA) has a strong interest as a voice for farmers and ranchers in the state, whose livelihoods and ability to provide us with food and fiber depend on water. While not part of the regulatory process, TDA will serve as an advocate for water planning and policies that protect farmers and landowners' rights.
The ability of this country to feed itself - to provide a safe, reliable, and domestically controlled food supply - is in peril. The American Farmland Trust shares an alarming statistic on the home page of their website: "Over 40 acres of U.S. farm and ranch land are lost every hour."
Farms and ranches are not only our source of food, but they represent our rural heritage, provide wildlife habitat, and offer environmental benefits. The threats to farmland come in the form of urban sprawl, poorly planned growth and development, increasing tax burdens as agricultural lands rise in value, and the economics of agriculture itself, which often does not provide adequate returns to keep farmers on the land.
Efforts are underway by farm advocates and government agencies to educate policy makers, reform development codes and tax rules, and increase the profitability of farming. In the face of this farmland crisis, though, a stronger stance and quicker action are needed.
Accompanying the alarming national data is the fact that Texas is losing more than 360 acres of farmland per day, with urban growth rates topping the list of reasons. For every 1,000 new residents, the surrounding area loses nearly 150 acres of cropland. What some may see as barren and unused scrubland is actually native rangeland, which makes up the largest category of land use in the state.
Groups such as the Texas Agricultural Land Trust and the Hill Country Conservancy are fighting to protect this vital resource. But for the private funds these groups depend on to have an impact, public policy and public funding are critical. An example is the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program that supports private landowners.
The growth of urban areas and increasing land values are not the only threats to farmland. Purchases of Texas farmland by foreign entities are on the rise. According to journalists from the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in June 2017, Texas leads all other states in the amount of farmland going to foreign buyers.
The buyers include wind energy firms, solar power companies and real estate investors. The investigation highlights the purchase of one of the largest U.S. pork producers, Smithfield Foods, by a firm in China. Texas had laws restricting foreign ownership of land that were repealed in the1960s, but other statutes currently govern how foreign entities do business in the state.
In case there are still folks who see farmland loss as a purely rural issue, with no impact on urban areas, we should reflect on recent disaster situations in Texas cities related to flooding. Hurricane Harvey left one-third of the city of Houston’s land area underwater, destroyed homes, schools, and businesses, and tore families apart as the struggled to deal with the aftermath and, in far too many cases, the loss of loved ones.
The U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific organizations directly relate urban growth that displaces farmland to the severity of the flood. Farms, ranches, and other open spaces absorb storm waters like a sponge, sequestering the water in the soil and underground aquifers.
Paving over that land with roads, shopping malls, and housing developments creates an impenetrable layer over the ground, so that water cannot seep into the soil. This direct link between farmland loss and flooding emphasizes the issue as one affecting all Texans - urban and rural.
Laws that protect our valuable farmland and open spaces, incentives for farmers and landholders to preserve lands, and well-planned growth that acknowledges the importance of farms are some of the solutions that Texans can turn to, in order to stop the loss.
Our position statements addressing New and Beginning Farmers and Economic Viability of Farms feature many of the approaches that The Department of Agriculture (TDA) will take in keeping farmers on their farms and bringing a new generation of farmers to the land.
Other focused efforts include funding for successful state programs, support for federal programs, and convening experts and stakeholders to guide further solutions.
The bottom line here is simple, and it is explained best by the simple slogan of American Farmland Trust, “No Farms; No Food.” Add in the economic, environmental, and cultural importance of farms and farmland, and the urgency of the issue is obvious. TDA will respond to this urgency with intelligent and informed strategies that protect the future of farms in our state.
The simple explanation of a regenerative approach is the methodology of food and farming systems that regenerates topsoil and increases biodiversity now and long into the future. This practice embraces sustainable agriculture, ensuring that the current generation’s food and fiber needs are met, but also making sure that resources and assets are in place for future generations to have affordable, appropriate food and clothing.
To understand the multiple facets of regenerative, here are some Texas agriculture facts. The annual economic impact of agriculture in Texas is over $100 billion, and 600,000 of jobs in the state are in agriculture. Farms and ranches in Texas cover over 130 million acres of land. Individual and family farms, which make up our Texas heritage, account for 85% of the state’s farms.
The Gallery of Texas Cultures project includes 27 different cultural displays, and that is by no means an exhaustive list. These facts help illustrate that practicing sustainable agriculture - the ability to regenerate our food system - is made up of economic, environmental, and cultural components. Each is as important as the others, and all must be addressed in order to truly realize sustainable practices.
Regenerative Agriculture in Texas is TDA’s #1 Role
Farms must remain economically viable by minimizing costs and increasing revenue. TDA must aid in the development of infrastructure such as processing and distribution facilities, work to ensure access to capital and to business training opportunities, and strengthen or create markets both domestically and abroad.
Food is also a primary way that cultures are shared and understood. The work of TDA can help keep families of all backgrounds on their farms and can enable families of all cultures to start and sustain farms through its new and beginning farmer programs. And, lest we forget the celebratory nature of food, TDA will promote the wide range of Texas cultures by supporting fairs, festivals, and other events throughout the state.
Regenerative agriculture ensures the sustainability of our food system through the triad of economic, environmental, and cultural best practices. We have an absolute responsibility to ourselves and to future generations to make informed decisions towards regenerative agriculture at every step.