"The study shows that mid-sized farms and ranches are disappearing fastest from the Texas landscape," said Neal Wilkins, Extension wildlife specialist. "Every year, we lose about 250,000 acres of mid-sized properties. In the rapidly fragmenting portions of the state, these farms and ranches are most often broken into smaller ownerships.

"Fragmentation often accompanies a change in land use," Wilkins continued. "Finding land for hunting and recreation is overwhelmingly the biggest motivator for land buyers today."

The study found that an increase in the value of land for development or recreation ("nonagricultural land values") was a good early indicator that the size of the average farm or ranch property would soon decrease.

"The consequences of fragmentation can be seen in the eastern half of the state and on the outskirts of just about any major city," said Julie Shackelford, American Farmland Trust's Texas regional director. "Even land in some of the most rural areas is in high demand for its scenic beauty and recreation potential.

"Farmers are feeling the pinch of fragmentation through rising land values, a breakdown of local agriculture and problems conducting their daily operations with busier roads and new neighbors. City-dwellers feel its impact through declining water supplies, open space and higher taxes resulting from services needed by new developments," said Shackelford.

"As the size of landholdings decreases, the amount of non-native, exotic pasture increases, reducing prime wildlife habitat," said Katharine Armstrong, Texas Parks and Wildlife commissioner. "Fragmentation is a major factor in the decline of northern bobwhite quail as well as other grassland birds and mammals."

Martin Hubert, deputy commissioner of the Texas Department of Agriculture, explained that family farmers who typically own and manage properties of 500 to 2,000 acres are particularly vulnerable.

"When those properties are sold, they are usually carved up," he said.

"Fragmentation makes the economics of farming more challenging for those who wish to stay in agriculture."

The study found that although the trend toward fragmentation shows no sign of reversing, some actions can be taken to slow it. As a remedy to fragmentation, researchers tested scenarios for a voluntary statewide Purchase of Development Rights program that would offer incentives for farmers and ranchers to continue owning and operate their lands. The results showed promise.

"The bottom line is that Texas landowners need more options to keep land in private ownership and management," Shackelford said. "A statewide Purchase of Development Right program offers a realistic solution. But in order to effectively rein in fragmentation, it needs to happen now, rather than later."

Two bills currently being considered by the Texas legislature, HB 895 and SB 992, would initiate a PDR program in Texas.

The Meadows Foundation and Houston Endowment Inc funded the study. An analysis of the study's implications and a map of the top 10 percent of Texas counties struggling with fragmentation can be found on American Farmland Trust's Web site at www.farmland.org.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com