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Unpacking the State of Central Texas Agriculture

You may have heard the 2020 Census is about to begin. Soon, we will be asked to fill out census forms and mail them back in or hear a knock on our door asking us to verbally take the census. Our government gathers this information every ten years to better understand our population and needs, which influence policies, funding, and more.

There is also is a lesser-known census completed every 5 years: the USDA agricultural census that conducts a complete count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. The latest census was conducted in 2017 and only recently released in 2019.

SFC recently went through an in-depth visioning process that led to us changing our vision and mission. We are working to preserve and support the growth of local farms, and increase the amount of local food grown in Central Texas.

Given these changes, we wanted to answer some common questions of what agriculture looks like in Central Texas. So we examined the census and looked for trends by comparing data from 2017 to 2012.

How Many Farms Are There in Texas?

Before we jump into region-specific information, let’s first look at Texas as a whole. Texas has the most farms of any state in the country—248,416 in total (as of 2017). How does this compare to other states? Since it’s an election year, we compared Texas to Florida, New York, and California.

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What Exactly is Central Texas?

How do we define the Central Texas region? To be honest, it’s still something we’re trying to figure out. Do we use the Austin-Round Rock MSA definition? Do we use the CAPCOG region? Crops need water, so what about defining our region by watershed?

For this exercise, we decided to define the region based on counties represented by producers (farmers, ranchers, and bee keepers) who sell at the SFC Farmers’ Markets and the Texas Farmers’ Markets - a total of 22 counties.

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Note: The USDA defines a farm as the following: A farm is any place that produced and sold—or normally would have produced and sold—at least $1,000 of agricultural products during a given year.

How Big Are the Farms?

Nationally, farm size has been trending towards the outside of the bell curve. There are fewer mid-sized farms and increasingly more small and large farms.

To gain a greater understanding of farm sizes, we looked at the number of farms, average farm size, and median farm size for all 22 counties. Averages can be skewed by just a few farms, so it’s important to include median farm size in our data. The median number separates the higher half of farms from the lower half of farms.

From 2012 to 2017, 12 of our 22 counties increased their number of farmers but decreased their average and median farm sizes. In more than half of the Central Texas counties, we’re seeing more farmers but they are growing on smaller parcels of land.

Four counties saw decreases across the board—fewer farmers, and smaller farm sizes. In the other 4 counties, there was a decrease in the number of farmers, an increase in the average farm size, but a decrease in median farm size.

This last figure most likely indicates there are fewer farmers farming on larger parcels. So, it looks like the national trends of farm size are the same in Central Texas.

Who is Farming?

The 2017 Census showed a huge increase (over 18k more women!) in the number of women across all counties.

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More women are becoming farmers, but we should note some of the increase in women farmers is due to how the Census is asking this question.

In previous years, respondents were only allowed to enter information on the principal operator of the farm. This approach did not capture the other people who were equally involved in decision-making and management of the farm.

Additionally, there could be unexpected changes in ownership. 59 is the average age of a Texas farmer, so in some cases, the male spouse may have passed away, leaving farm operations solely to the female spouse

We also see nearly a 30% increase in Latino producers across all counties. This is not surprising given the Latino population is the fastest-growing ethnicity and is expected to surpass all other ethnicities in Texas by 2050.

While the Latino farmer population increased, the number of African American producers decreased by about 10% across all counties. There could be a number of reasons for this, including structural racism across the food system.

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How Many Organic Farms do We Have?

As mentioned earlier, Texas has the most number of farms of any state. We compared the number of certified organic farms against New York, Florida and California to see where we stand.

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Unfortunately, Texas is way behind in the number of certified organic farms compared to other states (not just New York, California and Florida). National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) researched the lack of organic farms in Texas in 2016 in an insightful report, Who are the Organic Farmers of Texas?

NCAT researchers made recommendations on how to support the Texas organics industry. These include growing capacity for the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA), and ensuring that Texas’ Agriculture Extension Agents (Texas A&M Agrilife Extension) are familiar with and supportive of organic growing methods and the certification process.

Between 2012 and 2017, there has been a slight increase in the number of certified organic farms, growing from 238 to 311, respectively. However, when you look at the number of certified organic farms located in our above definition of Central Texas, there is a different story. In 2012, we had 43 Certified Organic Farms, but in 2017 that number dropped to just 26.

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The number of certified organic farms decreased in the 22-county region. Why would this be? One guess is the organic farmers in this region are selling directly to consumers, like at a farmers’ market or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs) where consumers have a personal relationship with the grower. The grower may be using organic techniques, but the certification may not be necessary (it’s costly, and there is a lot of paperwork) for the business given the farmers' relationship to their customers.

Fewer wholesale market opportunities is a disadvantage of having fewer certified organic farms. Grocery chains like HEB and Whole Foods depend on the USDA Organic label to indicate which products are grown organically. Here, the farmer doesn’t have the opportunity to speak directly with consumers and inform them of their growing methods.

What is the Impact of Direct to Consumer Sales?

SFC has long supported direct to consumer sales, which is exactly as it sounds—producers selling their goods directly to the consumer without a middle person. This includes farmers’ markets, farm stands, and CSAs. Interestingly, while the number of producers selling directly to consumers in all of Texas decreased from 2012 to 2017, the total sales increased dramatically from $28M to $45M.

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When we look at the 22 Central Texas counties, we see a very similar trend: while the total number of operations selling directly to consumers decreased slightly, the sales more than doubled from $6M to $13M! The growth of direct sales can be attributed to the increasingly aware consumer who wants to buy straight from their farmer. Let’s keep this up!

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But How is Business Really Doing?

Farming is hard, let’s just come right out and say it. From 2012 to 2017, the net cash farm income (calculated by subtracting gross farm income minus farm expenses) rose from just shy of $8,000 to nearly $16,000, or it doubled. That seems positive, right?

Let’s keep looking. Out of a total of 248,416 farms in Texas in 2017, 73% of farms had a net loss. That’s obviously not so positive.

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Do we see the same trend in the 22 counties in Central Texas? It depends on how you look at the data. About half of the counties increased their net income between 2012 to 2017, whereas half of the counties decreased their net income. However, the majority of the counties had net negative incomes to begin with, so between 2012 and 2017, counties just lost less income.

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It’s clear that something interesting is happening in Gonzales county given it’s $54k (2012) and $95k (2017) per farm average income, which is actually skewing the data. According to Texas A&M Agrilife, Gonzales county ranks in the top five Texas counties for poultry production and volume of beef cows.

When calculating the average farm income for the 22 Central Texas counties, it looks like the difference between 2012 and 2017 for these counties was an increase of $43k on average, per farm.

However, when you take out Gonzales county from the 22 county average, you see that the net income has only come a small way: in 2012 the net income was -$74k, and in 2017 the net income was $-72k.

Several weeks ago, data released shows farm bankruptcies are at an eight-year high, jumping 20% in 2019. The farm economy, both for the 22 Central Texas counties, and nationally, looks pretty bleak.

Our Key Takeaways

Farming is not always profitable. If there are not ways to increase profitability for farmers, their numbers will continue to decrease. By operating farmers’ markets, connecting institutional buyers to producers looking to scale their operations, and advocating for supportive local farm policies, SFC is committed to helping farmers flourish.

The organics industry in Texas is nascent at best when compared to other states. This could hinder the ability to build out a more robust supply chain of organic/sustainably-grown food at scale for Central Texans. However, recently Texas A&M Agrilife posted a job for an organic-focused Extension Agent (for the first time ever!) To encourage this, consumers can contact their state representatives and senators and tell them they support Texas A&M’s investment in organic agriculture.

The vast majority of Central Texas farmers are white, but it’s changing. An intentional effort will be crucial to support opportunities for women and farmers of color. SFC has recently dedicated additional staff to recruit beginning farmers and farmers of color to sell at our farmers’ markets.

Central Texans value locally produced food. Let’s make sure to support producers in marketing their products as such: