With the problems of lack of water and urbanization, how does a farmer in South Texas make it today?
“We diversify, and change,” says Fred Schuster who has been farming and ranching for more than 25 years in San Juan, Texas, following in the footsteps of his father, Carl, who began farming in the Rio Grande Valley in 1933.
Years ago, the Schuster Farm produced sugarcane, cotton and cattle. The Schuster family was one of the original cane growers in the Valley. They continued for more than 30 years, only to give it up three years ago because cane demanded too much water when the Rio Grande Valley was in drought condition.
“And we haven't grown cotton since '93 because the market just wasn't there,” says Schuster. Their cotton gin operated for 50 years but shut down in 2002.
In order to save their limited irrigation water for vegetables, greens and cantaloupe, he also quit growing other summer row crops — corn and grain, only some of the latter for cover crop in dryland production.
“Change and diversify — that's the name of the game.”
Schuster started concentrating his efforts on vegetables and now has 3,000 acres, including 1200 acres of greens — spinach, collard, kale, mustard, parsley, just a few of the 38 selections he grows.
He has 350 acres of cabbage, 35 acres of broccoli, and he was expecting to plant about 300 acres of melons the by end of January.
“Now we grow, pack and ship ourselves,” says Schuster. “It's called ‘vertical integration.’ We discovered that there's not enough profit margin to do it any other way. If you want to be successful, you find out what you have to do and you do it.”
Although Schuster has downsized his ranching operation, he still has 60 purebred Santa Gertrudis cattle.
For Schuster, a natural progression from ranching was to habitat management. “What you do for cattle, you can do for deer, quail, turkey, ocelots, doves.”
As well as other wild animals in South Texas. In the '80s he began researching wildlife habitat, and it became a hobby. But in 1992, habitat management transitioned into a business, although a sideline to farming and ranching.
With the South Texas drought, dryland farming has been unsustainable. Developers have seen this as an opportunity to buy up land and build new subdivisions.
Schuster takes a different view: “Dryland farmland can be turned into preserves for native habitat and can be saved for future generations.”
With the urbanization of South Texas has come a growing desire, especially for the Baby Boomers, to get back to nature, to spread out on their own ranches, from ten acres to thousands of acres. Birding and photography have become thriving businesses in the area as well.
For birds and animals to flourish, someone needs to re-vegetate barren land. Now, in 2003, habitat management is more than a sideline for Schuster Farms.
For his wife, Donna, it is pretty much a fulltime job. They specialize in wildlife and domestic forage seeds, working with each rancher, custom-mixing seeds, to provide the best possible mix specifically for that person's land.
Many of the seeds Schuster has introduced to South Texans have come from foreign countries, following extensive research into the best forage seeds. He also grows seed crops of his own.
Schuster says it is a challenge to change with the times, but he sees opportunity, too, for someone with foresight, someone who is willing to diversify and change.