Future of Small Farms in Big Texas

Insights into how Wickman Farm plans to do battle with coming climate change

Founded in 1985 with the purchase of a 50-acre plot of land, Wickman Farms is now a 500-acre family operated farm/ranch located in Hunt, Texas. The business has two primary streams of revenue generation. First is the raising and selling of 100% genetically certified red angus cattle. With current operations, the farm can herd up to 180 head of cattle at a time, the majority of which are sold to ranchers for breeding purposes. Second, the farm produces alfalfa as its primary crop, utilizing roughly 200 acres for harvesting. Depending on the annual yield, roughly 60% of the harvest is utilized as feed for the herd with excess hay sold to local ranchers. While turning an annual profit is vital for Wickman Farms growth, sustainability plays a central role in decision making processes as the owners aim to pass the farm from one generation to the next.

Not surprisingly, climate changes present many current and future challenges when considering the sustainability of Wickman Farms. For instance, the last number of decades has seen an increase in the total inches of annual rainfall however paradoxically the soil in eastern Texas has become dryer. It is speculated the dryer soil is secondary to increased average temperature (roughly 1° F over the past century).[1] An additional factor is that the volume of water per rainfall has increased while the incidence of wet days has remained fairly constant.[2] This has resulted in increased flooding and runoff water, leaving the soil unable to absorb most of the precipitation.

Looking forward, studies such as that performed by Risky Business Project suggest that by 2050 the number of days with temperatures above 95° F will rise from 43 days/year to 106 days/year.[3] An increase in temperature of this magnitude offers challenges from a farming and ranching perspective. As mentioned above, warmer weather results in dryer soil and decreased yield of farmland and grazing land. In addition, there is a direct effect of high temperatures on cattle which results in an increased susceptibility to disease.[4]

Given these current climate challenges and bleak outlook, Wickman Farms has begun the process of positioning itself towards sustainability. Over the past decade, the number of stock tanks (a.k.a. waterholes) on the property has doubled, while the farm has also significantly increased the depths of existing stock tanks. Wickman Farms has also engineered the land into waterways which direct runoff water towards the stock tanks. This network of waterways enables the farm to capture a larger percentage of the annual rainfall despite the dramatic downpours. This represents one investment that has already paid dividends as a recent drought left area farmers purchasing excess water from Wickman Farms.

In anticipation of less productive grazing fields, the farm has acquired a number of neighboring farms to increase their grazing acreage. The most significant recent acquisition was that of a neighboring tree farm which provides a natural shelter from the sun for cattle and a field of agroforestry for diversification of grazing land. In addition, the farm has begun to experiment with drought resistant GMO alfalfa seed as well as advanced their planting season from early April to mid-March. Finally, they have taken steps to protect their employees from dangerous temperatures with investment in air-conditioned equipment and a new civilian water system.

In looking to the future, there are several operational changes Wickman Farms may pursue to increase their sustainability. One strategy is to enter relationships with area farms which allows for usage of excess grazing land given disparate grazing yields. While at face value it may seem local farms should have similar yields, in East Texas moving just 15 miles north can make a dramatic difference. From a harvesting perspective, there are a number of strategies the farm may lean on to ensure future yields. One option is the installation of an irrigation system which utilizes water from stock tanks to help crops through extended droughts. Concurrently, the farm should look to invest more heavily in diversification of crops. Current trends suggest many crops such as lettuce are moving towards indoor production models, however, innovations from companies such as Monsanto and Indigo show promise for drought-tolerant wheat and corn in the future. The learning curve in planting a crop for the first time is steep and thus it will benefit Wickman Farms to experiment during a time of relative stability.

Climate change puts the future of small farms in Texas at risk, however with forward thinking and quick action Wickman Farms can achieve its goal of remaining in operation for generations to come.

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[1] “What Does Climate Change Mean for Texas,” Climate Reality Project (blog), June 23, 2016, www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/what-does-climate-change-mean-for-texas, accessed October 29, 2016.

[2] “What Climate Change Means for Texas,” United States Protection Agency, August 2016, www.epa.gov/climatechange/Downloads/impacts-adaptation/climate-change-TX, accessed October 29, 2016.

[3] Kinniburgh, Fiona, “Come Heat and High Water: Climate Risk in the Southeastern U.S. and Texas.” Risky Business: The Bottom Line on Climate Change, July 2015, www.riskybusiness.org/report/come-heat-or-high-water-climate-risk-in-the-southwestern-u-s-and-texas, accessed October 29, 2016.

[4] “What Climate Change Means for Texas,” United States Protection Agency, August 2016, www.epa.gov/climatechange/Downloads/impacts-adaptation/climate-change-TX, accessed October 29, 2016.

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6 thoughts on “Future of Small Farms in Big Texas

  1. Me,

    This blog is a great example of how what once was a small farm has grown to a sizable operation and continues to grow despite the future oppositions. They have shown that innovation and adaptability on a smaller scale can produce large impactful results. I especially enjoyed how you intertwined the various ways in which climate change is having an effect on all aspects of the industry. Climate change is playing a role in the water, cattle, crop, soil, and human capital. There is not one area within the industry unaffected by the threat of climate change. This goes to show how important the issue truly is to society today. It would be interesting to learn the motivation of the sellers that Wickman Farms is purchasing. Are they selling because they see the future obstacles resulting from climate change? Are they selling because they were behind the curve of innovation and lacked the ability to mitigate the changes already taking place?

  2. Me,

    Thank god there are companies like Wickman Farms that understand the importance of creating a greener future. From my understanding livestock is one of the greatest contributors to green house gas emissions (EPA). Is there anything Wickman Farms has planned on doing to possibly make their livestock less poluting?

    For example, could Wickman Farms possibly introduce other types of animals than red angus cattle that use less resources? Could they possibly off set their cattle’s CO2 emissions by growing corn or other types of produce?

    -John

    -JP

  3. Me,
    Water is a major concern in TX. I find your figures on rainfall interesting, that E TX gets more rainfall in fewer rainfall events leading to increased runoff. Wouldn’t this mean that most of the runoff eventually ends up in groundwater? Would it be possible to use wells to irrigate and water cattle? Of course, if they drill wells you will have to consider how to pump the water, perhaps they have NG on property and could run NG pumps? These pumps release much less CO2 then diesel or gasoline pumps.

    Also, have they considered the increased greenhouse gasses released by cab tractors vs non-cab tractors? For example, the a/c draws about 8hp from tractor’s engine thus burning more fuel and releasing more CO2? But perhaps they traded in old non-tier diesel engines to new tier rated engines to offset the emissions?

  4. Wickman, great article. It is interesting to see how small farms are feeling the effects of global warming and working to mitigate them. I wonder if simply expanding the grazing area is viable long term? One aspect that you didn’t touch on that I was curious about was methane emissions. Cows are responsible for producing a significant amount of greenhouse gases, and I’m wondering if you have seen any efforts to mitigate this. If not, are you concerned about potential regulations threatening the viability of the farm in the future?

  5. I love to hear that Wickman farm has grown so much since 1985 and I hope that it continues to grow in the following years. I like that Wickman farm has started to take action to fight climate change. There is a company called Indigo Agriculture (https://www.indigoag.com/) that is working hard to leverage natural capabilities of microbes to enhance crop yields under non-favorable circumstances such as droughts or heat excess. They will harvest their first optimized cotton first and it seems that yields will be around 10% more than conventional cotton. They still do not have alfalfa but it is likely that it will be available in the short term. Keep an eye on it!

  6. Really phenomenal article on sustainability at Wickman Farms. It was so well written you would almost think the writer was a Doctor!

    The most interesting part for me was how the need for sustainability is driving consolidation of farmland in rural Texas. Small family farms are being forced to band together to provide a more diverse ecosystem for cattle to survive and thrive (an example of this being Wickman Farms acquiring a neighboring three farm so their cattle could have shade while grazing). I would imagine this trend will have a profound impact on agriculture in not just Texas, but across the world, in the coming years.

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