The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has announced that the first Farmland Protection Program project in Texas has been approved for funding. The first property to be approved is the Freeman Ranch in Harris and Waller counties in Southeast Texas.

The 900-acre parcel provides a haven for an array of wildlife and offers critical flood protection downstream. The project is the result of the successful proposal submitted by the Katy Prairie Conservancy (KPC) of Houston.

Through the program, USDA enters into agreements with states, tribes, local governments, and non-profit organizations — such as land trusts, open space associations, and land resource conservation councils — to protect productive farm and ranch land through the purchase of conservation easements. Texas is one of 28 states participating in the program.

Conservation easements are used to obtain development rights that will prevent agricultural land conversion. Texas landowners who want to remain in an agricultural enterprise are sometimes forced out of production because of increased pressures of higher ad velorum taxes as property values for non-agricultural land rise. Often urban areas tend to impact farms and ranches by contributing to land fragmentation.

This has a direct economic impact on the land's ability to produce agricultural commodities as well as impacting various wildlife habitats.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service will continue to provide leadership to the KPC on developing a conservation plan on the conservation easement.

John P. Burt, state conservationist for NRCS, said, “We are very pleased that Texas is now participating in this program. Implementation of the program protects landowners from being forced to sell agricultural land for development if the landowner chooses to keep it in agriculture.”

The initial land enrolled in Texas is west of Houston and occupies some of the last remaining areas of the Katy Prairie. The KPC is a nonprofit land trust established to protect a sustainable portion of the prairie for its wildlife and agriculture values. Once enrolled, the land is permanently protected from the future development pressure. Landowners are permitted to continue their agricultural enterprise.

KPC Director Mary Anne Piacentini said, “The property is a priority project for KPC because not only will it expand the protected land base on the Katy Prairie, but its strategic location and the importance of the Freeman Ranch on the Katy Prairie will encourage other landowners to consider conserving their family farms and ranches.”

American Farmland Trust (AFT), an agricultural land conservation organization in San Marcos, initiated efforts to bring this USDA funding to Texas. Julie Shackelford, AFT's Texas director, said, “Many states have adopted this type of program, which can make the difference for those landowners who would like to keep their land in the family but who are feeling the pressures of urban encroachment. The Freeman Ranch demonstrates the potential for purchasing development rights to conserve agricultural lands and wildlife habitat in Texas.”

To participate in the program, landowners agree to limit the use of their land for non-agricultural purposes and have pending offers for acquisition of agricultural conservation easements.

To qualify, the farmland must be:

  • Included in a pending offer from a non-governmental organization, state, tribe, or local farmland protection program.

  • Privately owned.

    Covered by a conservation plan.

  • Large enough to sustain agricultural production.

  • Accessible to markets.

  • Surrounded by parcels of land that can support long-term agricultural production.

The Farmland Protection Program was established in the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996.

Contact the state office of NRCS in Temple at 254-742-9800.