Hidden off a dirt road offshoot of the bustling four-lane traffic on Spring Cypress Road and nestled between a storage facility and a three-story apartment complex is Atkinson Farms—a four-generation family farm that has been growing produce in Harris County since 1923.

Originally founded by German farmers in the mid-1800s, the Spring and Klein community was once a thriving rural community with a landscape dotted by hundreds of acres of family-owned farms.

“That was the first thing that was here—farming,” Atkinson Farms owner Mike Atkinson said. “Everyone’s kind of sold out. There used to be hundreds of little vegetable farms all throughout Spring and Tomball back in the 1960s and 1970s, and then development started; people got older, and their kids didn’t want to farm anymore, so they sold off the land.”

Shannon Dietz, Harris County’s Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent for agriculture and natural resources, said the county’s agriculture has changed tremendously as a result of urban sprawl.

“A lot of people don’t realize Harris County used to be one of the biggest agriculture-producing counties in the whole state,” Dietz said. “Every day though, I see a little bit less [farmland] and more construction. ... The face of agriculture is going to be permanently changed here in Harris County.”

While much has changed over the past nearly two centuries, some of those family-owned farms remain, continuing to bring farm-fresh produce to the residents of Spring and Klein.

Family tradition

As one of the founding families of the Spring and Klein community, the Theiss family emigrated from Germany and settled near present-day Gleannloch Farms, Theiss Farms co-owner Stacey Watthuber said. Watthuber’s father, Jerry Theiss, began farming in the 1970s near the intersection of Stuebner Airline and Louetta roads.

“We used to farm all of this land where H-E-B is all the way to Klein High School as well as a lot of fields on Spring Cypress Road,” said Dwayne Theiss, Watthuber’s brother and a co-owner and farmer at Theiss Farms. “But now it’s all subdivisions.”

Watthuber runs the Theiss Farms Market on Rayford Road, which opened in 1998, while her brother runs the Stuebner Airline market, which opened in 1985. In addition to offering a wide selection of produce, Theiss Farms also offers grass-fed beef.

While Atkinson said his grandfather began farming in Harris County in 1923, the family moved to its current location off Spring Cypress Road in 1961. Now a four-generation farm, Atkinson Farms grows an array of produce and offers you-pick berries.

In addition to selling produce to the public at its on-site market, the farm also sells produce wholesale to local grocers and restaurants.

Aside from vegetable farms, the Old Time Christmas Tree Farm is another family-owned farm located off Spring Cypress Road. Once a dairy farm, the land is owned by Damian and Leia Prause and has been in Leia Prause’s family for more than a century, according to the farm’s website. Leia Prause’s father, Wayne Kleb, continues to raise cattle on the land today.

In addition to cattle, the Old Time Christmas Tree Farm offers a pumpkin patch throughout October and a Christmas tree farm throughout the holiday season beginning Nov. 23.

The Prauses did not respond to Community Impact Newspaper’s request for comment as of press time.

A changing landscape

While the Theiss and Atkinson farms have persisted through the years, surviving decades of development in Spring and Klein, both families said they have done so by adapting to the times as challenges came along.

According to Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute data, the amount of cropland in Harris County has been cut in half from 86,668 acres in 1997 to 42,749 in 2017. Likewise, Harris County’s grazing land has decreased within that same 20-year time period from 254,642 acres to 201,770 acres.

Theiss and Atkinson both agreed overdevelopment and a lack of local hunting have lead to an overpopulation of deer in northwest Harris County.

“There’s not many patches of woods around here for the deer to live, so they’re getting squeezed into our fields,” Theiss said. “I actually can’t plant certain crops in some of my fields because the deer eat it.”

Dietz said feral hogs are another concern he hears from local farmers.

“The concern with feral hogs is not only the destruction they do to crops but also the diseases they carry,” he said.

Aside from wildlife, Theiss and Atkinson agreed rainfall is another challenge for Harris County farmers.

“We used to get some good rains, but now it seems like it rains 2-5 inches every time and that’s too much,” Theiss said. “Every time it rains that much, you pretty much have to start over.”

In addition to facing competition from big-chain grocers and pop-up farmers markets, the families said they are also constantly fending off developers who want to buy their land.

“Land used to be more sacred to families, and they’d keep it in their families for generations,” Dietz said. “Nowadays is hard. ... Producers tell us on a daily basis that developers come up to them with an open checkbook and just say: ‘Name a price for your land.’”

While Atkinson Farms began with 150 acres, today the farm is 75 acres. Likewise, Theiss Farms has shrunk from 80-100 acres to 40.

Neal’s Berry Farm and Farmer’s Market, a you-pick berry farm that was located on a 6-acre tract of land on Gosling Road up until 2015, is owned by Tommy Neal—also a descendant of Spring and Klein founding families. However, Neal said four years ago he decided to sell the Spring farm and start over in Waller.

“We didn’t have quite enough land to put it in agricultural taxing, so it was a residential taxing, and basically, I was renting my place from the county and the school district for $2,000 a month,” Neal said. “You can’t make money in the farming business when you’re paying that much in taxes. Unless you inherited the land, you can’t buy land in [Spring] and farm profitably.”

Now with 21 acres, Neal said the move enabled the berry farm to add peach and fig trees, with plans of adding grapevines and apple trees in January.

Future of farming

Since the Atkinsons began farming in Harris County 96 years ago, much has changed in technology.

“I can remember when I was little working the crops with a horse and mule,” Atkinson said. “From using a hoe and a shovel to now using a tractor.”

Dietz said the addition of GPS systems into farming equipment, drones that allow for spot treatments of crops with herbicides and pesticides, and true-to-date climate data have taken guesswork out of farming.

“The days of farmers counting on just the Farmers’ Almanac are long gone,” Dietz said.

With less of the younger generation entering the industry, Dietz said part of the role of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension program is emphasizing the importance of 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs, of which Spring, Klein and Cy-Fair ISDs all have.

“Farming is extremely vital, even more so now because you don’t have as many family farms,” he said. “People don’t realize how big of a role agriculture plays in every facet of your life.”