Rick and Travis Wilson have learned how to farm around concrete.
A mile away from Interstate 35 West in Fort Worth, the father and son duo are growing wheat on a patch of land. A Cracker Barrel sits a mile away. It’s crowded compared to the expanses of land in rural areas. But the Wilsons insist that Fort Worth has the most fertile soil to grow crops within a 100-mile radius.
“When the old settlers came here, what were they looking for? The best land they could find,” Rick Wilson said. “So they settled right here in Fort Worth on the Trinity River.”
For about 35 years, Wilson has farmed on pockets of land around Fort Worth. But as property values explode and the city’s population grows, open land where farmers like the Wilsons can grow crops like corn and wheat shrink, forcing them to leave the business or adapt and farm farther away.
Big demand, little availability for farmland in Fort Worth
Rick Wilson recalls all sorts of places where he used to farm in Fort Worth over the years. One area is now a FedEx Freight Center. In another area, he farms on 200 acres that once was 1,200 acres.
Leasing land for farmers until it is developed is common across the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, said Blake Bennett, an associate professor and agricultural economist for Texas A&M Agrilife Extension.
High price tags for land makes it difficult for new farmers to purchase land and start their business, he said, which is why farmers often use leased land. Many companies benefit from letting farmers grow crops because they get an agricultural tax exemption until they choose to develop it. The landowners often won’t wait long before building, he said.
“The land is basically in agriculture, growing crops, raising livestock and then suddenly, it’s growing development, it’s growing houses or growing buildings,” Bennett said. “It happens so fast.”
Lack of land has forced farmers to move somewhere else, or stop farming altogether, Bennett said.
Lewis Trietsch, a farmer in Denton County, said he’s lost thousands of acres over the years from development. For years, he had to haul fuel as a side gig to supplement his farming income. Trietsch, now 69, farms on 500 acres. He knows many other farmers who have switched careers because they couldn’t find enough land to make it work.
“It’s a sign of the times, I guess,” Trietsch said.
Demand for rural land across Texas has skyrocketed. In the Fort Worth region, the real price per acre of land increased from $1,312 to $1,508 per acre — a 15% jump from 2020 to 2021, according to Texas A&M’s University Real Estate Research Center.
Charles Gilliland, a research economist at the Texas Real Estate Research Center, said there’s been an explosion in the amount of land transactions, and the price for land across Texas has increased by about 30%. That trend started in the middle of the pandemic when people were trying to get away from cities, he said.
“There’s an army, if you will, of people that are looking for rural land … all over the country … and they’re willing to pay for it,” Gilliland said. “So they’re bidding essentially against each other and driving the price up.”
Farming in the city
Travis Wilson describes farming in the city as a logistical nightmare, but his family is still making it work on Fort Worth.
Some equipment, like a big John Deere sprayer, don’t fit under many bridges, he said. They’ve been doing this so long that they know the streets well, but there are still problems. One time, a piece of equipment pulled down a power line while driving. Another time, they got into a car accident.
Yet the Wilsons say it’s worth it. Not many farmers want to come to the city, and in more rural areas, it’s more competitive. Plus, it’s a quick drive to get fertilizer or to deliver wheat to the grain elevator in Saginaw, Texas.
“A lot of people think we’re crazy for still coming down here, but this is the best ground,” Travis Wilson said.
They need about 5,000 acres of farmable land to break even, Travis Wilson said. They have land in Decatur, and still lease land in Fort Worth. But they’ve also had to expand 100 miles outside of the city to find available land.
Wilson worries about the logistics of keeping the operation going as they have to find places farther from where they live. He suspects his 6-year-old son will be the family’s last farmer as land gets harder to find.
Wilson loves farming. He travels hundreds of miles to different plots of land to continue his livelihood. But as land starts turning into buildings, he worries he’ll be forced to choose between his passion and the home he loves if he has to drive even farther out.
“I don’t know what I would do if I stopped farming,” he said. “So as we have to farm farther and farther away, it’s a problem.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.