Before the toll roads, strip centers and master-planned communities spread west to the city of Katy, the area was known for its hundreds of acres of farmland. Nearly 700 acres of former farmland have been sold for development since July 2014.
“Katy used to be all farms,” said Mark Kidd Sr., a commercial real estate broker who has made a specialty of negotiating land deals around Katy. “It’s just not [that way]anymore. Most of the farmers are watching the market, and when the time is right they become sellers.”
Kidd’s company, M Kidd Properties, negotiated the sale of roughly 73 acres of cattle land located at the intersection of Katy Hockley and Beckendorff roads in July. The land was sold to John Beeson of Houston-based commercial development company Beeson Properties. In July 2014, Beeson purchased 621 acres of former rice land on the opposite side of Katy Hockley Road. M Kidd Properties represented the sellers in that negotiation as well.
“A lot of these big farms—they haven’t been farming that land since maybe 1995,” Kidd said. “Most of the farming has moved farther west.”
The latest agricultural census, released in 2012, bears out that estimation. Waller County is one of the few counties in Texas that has seen an increase in acreage used for farming, with more than a 3 percent jump in the amount of farmland since 2007.
Agricultural land use shifted from Harris to Waller counties as developers sought to purchase acres of the abundant farmland in northwest Harris County.
“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.”
Driving the shift in land usage in the Greater Katy area is the completion of the Grand Parkway, Kidd said. Recent farmland sales are within six miles of the Grand Parkway and I-10.
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 north of Katy 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.”
As 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.
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.”
As 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 toward 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 agricultural 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.”