Texas Times: Texas Farmers & Ranchers--An Enduring Legacy

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn Jul. 27, 2009, 7:54am

Farmers and ranchers across the state are experiencing significant losses due to record temperatures and the worst drought some parts of Texas have ever seen.

Of course, this is not the first time farmers and ranchers have faced seemingly insurmountable odds. The hard work and ingenuity of Texas farmers and ranchers has always carried them through, and I am confident the same will occur this time.

Texas AgriLife Extension economists reported last week that this year's crop losses in Texas are already estimated at $2.6 billion, and livestock losses are close to $1 billion since November 2008. The U.S. Drought Monitor indicated Texas has the most land in the worst stage of drought in nearly a decade.

In some parts of central Texas, half of the cotton, corn and sorghum crops-Texas's primary exports-have already been wiped out by the drought. Grazing pastures are too dry for livestock, and many Texas ranchers are being forced to sell their cattle because they cannot feed them.

As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I will continue to do all I can to bring the concerns of Texas farmers and ranchers to the table in Washington.

First and foremost, in light of the severe drought, is the issue of timely disaster relief. I recently wrote to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, demanding to know why the $3 billion in emergency drought relief funding, which was approved and signed into law more than one year ago as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, has yet to be released.

I've heard from hundreds of farmers and ranchers who have completed the paperwork and have been assured they qualify, but have yet to receive any relief or news of when to expect it. This is unacceptable and I will continue to press for an answer.

The roots of Texas' farming and ranching run deep. The Texas livestock industry first got its start in Spanish Texas, with a focus on cattle, goat, sheep and hog production. Similarly, some of the first farms in Texas were established in small plots of land next to Spanish missions and settlements in San Antonio, Ysleta (modern-day El Paso), and Nacogdoches.

It was not until after Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, however, that Texas' farming and ranching industries would undergo significant development.

In 1825, Stephen F. Austin brought 300 families, today known as the Old Three Hundred, into a region that stretched from Central Texas down to the Gulf Coast.

These settlers were given a square league of land, called a sitio, which amounted to more than 4,000 acres, along with a labor for farming, which was 177 acres. Soon, Austin's group of settlers had introduced cotton plantations, developed a commercial livestock industry, and started many small family farms.

These industries quickly expanded. From 1850 to 1860, cotton production in Texas rose from 58,000 bales to 431,000 bales. Cowboys had begun annual cattle drives from south Texas to points in Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi.

By the 1850s, herds of Texas cattle were being driven to Illinois, California and Iowa.

Germans settled farming communities such as New Braunfels, Boerne and Brenham, while Czechs established small farms in Brazos and Fayette counties. These mainly subsistence farms were typically divided into plots for cattle and hog raising, hunting, gathering firewood, and growing corn. An acre or two was sometimes set aside for growing fruit, herbs and tobacco.

By 1900, Texas was home to nearly 350,000 farms. The railroad played a central role in the expansion of Texas' farming and ranching industries, while subsistence farming began to decline. Cattle and cotton continued to dominate Texas exports, but the 1900s also saw the rise in importance of wheat, sorghum, rice, hay and dairies in Texas.

Today, Texas leads the nation in cotton, cattle, and sheep and goat production. Texas is the second most productive agricultural state in the country. Our agriculture industry is a source of pride for all Texans and central to our state's economy.

Over the course of its history, the Texas agriculture industry has survived setbacks, droughts, hurricanes and other serious challenges. The steadfastness and innovation of the Texas farmer and rancher has always prevailed.

I know that today, despite the discouragement and devastation of the current drought, the hard work of thousands of Texans dedicated to farming and ranching will carry them through. I pledge to do all I can to help these enduring industries make it through this trying time and emerge even stronger and more successful.

Source: Texas State Historical Association's Handbook of Texas Online.

Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Agriculture, and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee's Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.

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