Harris County’s agricultural roots adapt

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Increased development in Harris County has transformed the local agriculture industry from traditional large-scale farms and ranches to smaller operations implementing modern forms of urban agriculture.

Although farming is not as common as it was decades ago, roughly 285,000 acres in the county are used for agriculture production today.

“Northwest Harris County is our largest area as far as total acreage [for agriculture usage],” said Gary Underwood, manager for agricultural appraisal in Harris County. “A lot of people wouldn’t believe 25 percent of the whole county is still under agriculture production.”

Agricultural roots

Harris County’s agricultural roots adaptBefore the highways, strip centers and master-planned communities that dot Cy-Fair’s modern-day landscape appeared, the area had a deeply rooted history in agriculture. During the 1950s, Cy-Fair was referred to as “Harris County’s Little A&M” by the Houston Chronicle, and many students had a background in farming, according to Cy-Fair ISD history.

Today the county’s agriculture industry is diversified. There are roughly 21 types in the county, including timber, rice production, corn, cattle, greenhouses and tree nurseries. However, Harris County is losing about 2,000 to 5,000 acres of agricultural land annually, Underwood said.

“As the city [of Houston]and surrounding areas increase in size, that urban sprawl takes away arable farmland and large acreage,” said Christian Malsatzki, Harris County Agrilife extension agent for agriculture and natural resources. “Production that was here 30 or 40 years ago is no longer around because that land has been eaten up by development.”

Reasons for selling farmland can vary depending on the situation, said Sam Reese, manager for Warren Ranch, located just west of Cypress in Hockley.

“It could be that the heirs [of the land]are disconnected from the previous generations’ agricultural endeavors,” he said. “Or sometimes, because of our proximity to the city of Houston, it’s hard to fault them if someone offers to buy 100 acres for $15,000 an acre. It’s hard to argue with [that scenario]at times even though we don’t like the end result.”

Warren Ranch is one of the largest working ranches still in operation in the county at roughly 6,500 acres. The land was once used to raise quarter horses but is now used for cattle production and farming.

A newer venture—launched in early 2014—Leslie and Michael Marchand operate Whitehurst Heritage Farm off Grant Road in Cypress. The 100-acre farm raises pastured chickens and eggs, which the Marchands sell to Gramen Farms, Black’s Market Table and Season’s Harvest Cafe.

Whitehurst is one of only a handful of large-scale poultry farms in Texas that practices a different style of farming compared to most poultry suppliers, providing fresh grass and open land for grazing.

“There is a [farming]resurgence coming, but everybody like us has to go back and learn how people did things in the past,” Leslie said. “We all have some roots to farming, you just have to figure out how far back it goes.”

Urban agriculture 

Harris County’s agricultural roots adaptAs the larger parcels of land once used for agriculture diminish in Harris County, smaller acreage production and urban agriculture has become a common trend, Malsatzki said.

After experimenting with traditional farming, Geoff Thimons launched McLeod’s Urban Farms in early 2015 as a small-scale operation that grows microgreens—sprouts such as shoots and wheatgrass—for Black’s Market Table and Season’s Harvest Cafe.

“I spent a year experimenting with traditional farming, but I found it to be very difficult in our area,” Thimons said. “I wanted to find a way to still be a farmer but try and minimize all the difficulties I experienced.”

Thimons also wanted to have a year-round business, which is why he decided to grow sprouts indoors where he can control the environment. His set-up allows him to have control over how much water the plants receive, the temperature, the humidity and hours of sunlight.

Since launching earlier this year, Thimons’ business has quadrupled. He also distributes his microgreens at the Tomball Farmers Market and said he has received an outstanding response from the community.

“I get responses from people saying they’re most excited to see me [at the market]because they can find the other products at the grocery store, but [mine]is truly unique,” Thimons said. “I see people taking to it and taking to the health benefits of what I grow.”

The Harris County Agrilife Extension Office offers two urban agriculture programs: the urban farmer program and the urban rancher program.

“The urban farmer program looks at crop and vegetable production on the small and large scale,” Malsatzki said. “Now that we’re seeing more of an increase in the urban farm movement, as interest grows we’re going to try and offer each program every year.”

Conserving land

Harris County’s agricultural roots adaptAs development pushes farther north and west, the Katy Prairie Conservancy works to preserve as much as possible of the historic prairie in northwest Harris and Waller counties for the benefits it provides both people and wildlife.

The Katy Prairie was once approximately 750,000 acres and part of a larger coastal prairie ecosystem that encompassed 9 million acres. The area encompasses part of the northwest corner of Cypress, south of Hwy. 290 south to I-10 and west to Waller County.

“We expect as development moves farther north and west and areas become developed, we will become an oasis of green, like Central Park is in New York,” executive director Mary Anne Piacentini said. “We have a lot of outreach and educational programs, but our major focus is protecting as much land as possible because that movement [of development} is north and west.”

Today the conservancy owns 13,000 acres of land and about 3,000 acres in conservation easements, which are voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and an easement holder that restricts certain uses of the property and land.

“If [property owners]donate an easement, they can reduce their income tax and estate tax,” Piacentini said. “If they sell an easement, they don’t get the tax benefits but they do get cash to buy other land.”

Of the eight easements owned by the conservancy, seven were donated and one was purchased. Seven of the eight  easements continue to be used for agriculture, Piacentini said.

“We still have rice in production on some properties, and some farmers who work with us grow corn, soybeans, and other items that provide some foraging for different wildlife species but also provide opportunities for a farmer or rancher to continue making a living at his or her craft,” she said.

At Warren Ranch, aside from protecting the property from future development, Reese said they are striving to be sustainable and implement modern practices that will help continue to produce safe products in the future.

“We want to be a role model and do things to encourage other remaining producers in Harris County to stay in business and not sell out to developers,” Reece said. “If they see what we’re doing is sustainable, it might
interest them.”

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Marie Leonard
Marie came to Community Impact Newspaper in June 2011 after starting her career at a daily newspaper in East Texas. She worked as a reporter and editor for the Cy-Fair edition for nearly 5 years covering Harris County, Cy-Fair ISD, and local development and transportation news. She then moved to The Woodlands edition and covered local politics and development news in the master-planned community before being promoted to managing editor for the South Houston editions in July 2017.
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