Research, Data, and Analysis Focused on Central Texas
Produced by the Capital Area Council of Governments
Author: Carol Fraser
While the fertile soils of the Central Texas region have long been an attraction for human settlement and agriculture, during the past few decades, rapid population growth and urbanization have been putting development pressure on available prime farmland. This process has meant significant changes in rural and suburban communities, as land use changes have reshaped the character of these communities.
Recognizing this trend, and seeking to revitalize the local agricultural economy, several groups in the region have been working towards preserving and rehabilitating local farmland. One idea that local organizations and governments are currently discussing is the potential for agricultural production on publicly owned land, and good locations for local food distribution centers and incubators.
The question is, how much publicly owned land is there in the region right now, and is it any good for farming or locating a food hub? CAPCOG decided to investigate at a regional scale.
Economic Potential of Underutilized Public Land
The major motivation for this project came from a conversation with the Sustainable Food Center (SFC). They’ve long been advocates in the region for a more local food system, in which the region’s schools, worksites and food service operators are more directly connected to fresh, healthy food from farmers within Central Texas.[i] While interest in local and sustainable food products is increasing in the region, pressures on available farmlands are mounting. The SFC consulted CAPCOG to better understand the existing availability of land that could be used for producing fruit, vegetable and livestock for sale and distribution in the region.
Land owned by public entities, especially that which is currently underutilized, presents a unique opportunity to grow the local food economy and extract greater economic value out of publicly owned assets. Foreclosed and abandoned properties, large tracts such as airports and schools, and property acquired for flooding mitigation are all places where economic opportunity may be limited to practices which involve only temporary structures and seasonal use.
Public entities also have ongoing interests in developing their parcels for such purposes: in recent years, comprehensive plans, local ordinances and public support have all begun calling for increasing local food production and consumption. Leasing or selling their lands for agricultural use may represent an as-yet untapped revenue stream for many government entities.
Plus, finding a publicly owned site for a food hub – a place for aggregation, distribution and marketing services for local farmers and ranchers – could “make it possible for many producers to gain entry into new larger-volume markets that boost their income” and catalyze broader food system changes.[ii] Because many food hubs operate on limited budgets, usually as non-profit entities, a publicly owned site could provide necessary economic support to start and keep one afloat.
From Data Wrangling to Cattle Wrangling…
The first step in identifying suitable areas was to define what was meant by “publicly owned.” We obtained parcel information for all 10 CAPCOG Counties[iii] and selected all owners who seemed in some way public – from Independent School Districts to Municipal Utility Districts, from Community Colleges to public universities, from Counties to cities to towns.
After narrowing down to just these specific parcels, we overlaid data about prime farmland and soil types from the US Geological Survey, as well as floodplain information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This gave a complete picture of the most significant factors for farming: do these parcels have potentially high quality soil for food production, and might they be at risk of being lost to development?
While farming in a floodzone is not always ideal, these parcels are limited in other uses, such as locating housing or industry. Farming these parcels could be one of the few ways to make them economically viable by both stimulating economic activity and bringing in revenue for the landowners.
To make these files interactive and public, we put them on ArcGIS Online, an online mapping platform, and underlaid them with satellite imagery. This enables you to see if any structures are on the parcels and where they are located, as well as roads and vegetation. (The map is best viewed with relevant layers enabled per one county at a time). You can find the map here.
Surprisingly, Urban Counties Have the Most Potential
The counties with the most publicly owned parcels, as well as the most acres of publicly owned parcels with prime farmland located both in and out of the floodplain, are also the region’s two most urban and populous counties: Travis County and Williamson County. Blanco County comes in third place, but this is mostly due to the inclusion of the almost 6,500 acres of Pedernales Falls State Park – publicly owned land, but much better suited for camping and recreation than agriculture.
While the more urban Travis and Williamson Counties own the largest number of acres, the public lands that are owned by the more rural counties in the region are often highly desirable for agriculture. For example, Caldwell County possess 3,493 acres of publicly owned parcels, and a whopping 69.5% of them are prime farmland, accounting for 2,428 acres. Burnet County and Fayette County likewise have upwards of 40% (1,227 acres) and 34% (333 acres) respectively. Interestingly, Bastrop County, home to the innovative Elgin Campus of Austin Community College, where the Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurship Program operates,[iv] as well as the Texas Center for Local Food[v] and the Elgin Agrarian Community,[vi] comes in seventh place for overall public acreage, only 16.9% of which is prime farmland. This is perhaps due to Bastrop’s relatively un-urbanized landscape with few government bodies possessing land, large private landholdings in agricultural production, and concentration of prime farmland near the Colorado River.
Fasten Your Seat Belts: Growing Food at Airports?
Taking a closer look at Caldwell County’s high proportion of prime farmland portions, it becomes clear that a large portion of the potential publicly owned prime farmland is located just over the border from Hays County, in the 1,500-acre San Marcos Municipal Airport.
Likewise, the roughly 1,500 acres of the Austin Bergstrom International Airport sit on Lewisville silty clay, prime farmland that is not subject to high erodibility. As the airport is not at full runway buildout, there may be potential to use some of this well-located, well-connected land for agricultural production.
This concept is not without precedent: at New York City’s JFK Airport, JetBlue has started growing food – in containers – for its crew members to eat and to provide green space for their customers (and undoubtedly for good press).[vii] The mini-farm is also part of an outreach project with GrowNYC, a nonprofit connecting residents, especially schoolchildren, with the local food system. Other airports apparently lease out property for farmers to grow alfalfa and biofuel crops. In an eco-conscious and eager-to-innovate city like Austin, this idea may yet take off.
Cities vs. Counties: Different Types of Landholding
To move towards making food production and creation of a distribution hub a reality, it helps to know who owns – and therefore controls – the parcels in question. While counties have many jurisdictional powers in Texas, especially in rural areas, it is interesting to note that the top publicly controlled landowners both by acreage and numbers of parcels are mostly cities.
Of Travis County’s nearly 65,000 acres, approximately 70%, or over 40,000 acres, belong to the City of Austin. To put this in perspective, imagine a football field, which is about 1.32 acres. This means that the City of Austin owns about the equivalent of 30,000 football fields in Travis County!
Likewise, in other counties, such as Hays, Fayette, Caldwell, and Burnet, cities are the primary landholders. While Williamson County and Llano County are exceptions, the cities of Round Rock and Georgetown and the City of Llano own significant numbers of parcels, even if they do not necessarily own large tracts. It seems counties tend to own large tracts of lands – airports, parks, floodways and trusteeships – while cities own many smaller parcels, often within urbanized areas.
This could indicate the approach for developing agriculture in various areas in the region should differ according to the primary landholding authority. This makes intuitive sense, and it has implications for the different types of potential projects. Cities and towns may be amenable to community gardens, small scale farms and commercial kitchen incubators within urbanized areas, and may already have comprehensive planning and public demand to support that. Counties may be able to use larger parcels for more industrial production, large-scale and long-term storage, or public-private partnerships and farm incubators or community college projects like ACC’s.
How Much Are We Talking Really: Production Potential
While it is useful to know how much land might potentially be available, the next question is: what could this actually mean for the food system? How much food could this provide for local residents?
Our analysis revealed that even if only 25% of the “ideal” portions – those with prime farmland that are also located in the floodplain – of Travis County’s publicly owned land were put into local agricultural production, this would amount to a fairly significant amount of 750 acres. Using an approximate yield per acre (of organically grown vegetables) of 10,000 pounds, this could account for approximately 7,500,000 pounds of vegetables, per year, in Travis County alone. [viii] Estimating consumption of about 1 pound of vegetables per person per day, this could potentially feed about 20,000 people in a year.
Looking at the region’s publicly owned land as a whole, if 25% of all “ideal” publicly owned portions of land were farmed at the same rate of 10,000 pounds of vegetables per year, this would amount to 1,322 acres in production, providing food for 36,000 people a year.
At 50% and 75% - again, only of portions with prime farmland located in the floodplain – this amount rises to 72,500 people and 108,700 people respectively. While these numbers are only estimates and do not reflect current use of lands, existing structures, or investments required to be agriculturally or economically viable, they do reflect the raw potential of publicly held lands for local food production and consumption.
While this project has revealed a lot, it’s best to keep in mind that local food production might not be the best or only use for these parcels. Given the region’s other current issues (lack of affordable housing, traffic and air quality issues, intermittent droughts and wildfires, to name a few) it may be best to combine local food production with other purposes, or limit it altogether on some parcels. At the same time, the results of this study should be useful to anyone who is looking for ways to reorient the local food system, whether on publicly owned or privately held lands.
Sources & Notes
[i] Sustainable Food Center, Farm Direct Program description. https://sustainablefoodcenter.org/programs/farm-direct
[iii] While we used data that is as accurate as possible, some counties do not have updated parcel data from 2018 or 2017 - therefore the parcel data may only reflect what is current as of 2016. However, most counties in the region have not been actively expanding their parcel ownership in those two years, so we expect this data to be fairly accurate. You can find the county parcel shapefiles here, within the CAPCOG Open Data portal: https://regional-open-data-capcog.opendata.arcgis.com/
[iv] Austin Community College, Elgin Campus. http://www.austincc.edu/campuses/elgin-campus
[v] Texas Center for Local Food. http://texaslocalfood.org/#myaccount
[vi] Elgin Agrarian Community. https://www.elginagrarian.com/
[vii] Mohr, Kyle. “’Farm to Air’? Why JetBlue is Farming at a New York Airport.” October 20 2015. Food For Thought. NPR.org. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/10/20/449213657/farm-to-air-why-jetblue-is-farming-at-a-new-york-airport
[viii] These numbers come from Kevin Gaffney’s Master thesis on the potential of agricultural production in Central Texas, 2013. See Chapter Four, starting on page 51. https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/24363/GAFFNEY-MASTERSREPORT-2013.pdf
Follow Data Points
Data Points is a blog dedicated to policy and planning issues in the Capital Area of Central Texas. It is produced by staff at the Capital Area Council of Governments (CAPCOG).