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Cropped Out: Denton County's biggest farmers under siege

Profile image for Lauren Rosenthal
Lauren Rosenthal, For the Denton Record-Chronicle

Editor's Note: This is Part 2 of a series we call "Cropped Out." Steady population growth and conversion of rural farm and ranchland into residential, retail and commercial developments have created a clash of cultures on the road to urbanization in Denton County. Students from the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism reported and wrote the stories. UNT professor George Getschow, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, edited the stories for exclusive publication in the Denton Record-Chronicle.

JUSTIN — On a chilly morning in February, Travis Mitchell, wearing well-worn Wranglers and a long-sleeved shirt, steps into his battered red Ford pickup that has racked up more than 200,000 miles and starts his engine. A cloud of exhaust fumes drifts across his farmhouse straddling FM407 in Justin. Outside his ancient pickup, Travis's herd dog Zeus, a black and brown border collie, sits whining and wagging his tail.

Travis Mitchell poses with the family dog, Doc, in front of the family farm truck. Mitchell and his family, who are tenant farmers and have no ownership over the land they lease, are losing valuable farming land to housing developments that are eagerly and rapidly building on the Justin area's untouched and vast acres of land.For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal
Travis Mitchell poses with the family dog, Doc, in front of the family farm truck. Mitchell and his family, who are tenant farmers and have no ownership over the land they lease, are losing valuable farming land to housing developments that are eagerly and rapidly building on the Justin area's untouched and vast acres of land.
For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal

"Buddy, you want to go with us don't you?" says Mitchell. "Poor ol' dog."

But today, there's no room in the truck for Zeus. A longtime ranch hand, Travis Mason, 44, is sitting in Zeus's seat. Mitchell is counting on Mason to help him drive the tractor and bale enough hay to feed 200 cows the Mitchells are raising on eight farms they operate under lease.

As Mitchell and Mason rumble across a dirt road that crosses a vast prairie that's been farmed for decades by Mitchell and other members of his family, the two men arrive at the top of a hill. On the horizon they see downtown Denton and a colossal procession of newly constructed buildings sprawling along Interstate 35W.

As they watch the juggernaut of urbanization spread its wings farther and farther across the once wide-open prairie, the Mitchells are painfully aware that the 8,000 acres of farmland they lease in Denton County will inevitably succumb to the plow of development.

"You know in the back of your mind that eventually one day you're going to have to move," Mitchell says, glumly.

Rampant development has already driven many of the Mitchell's neighbors out of farming in Denton County. Some of the farms the Mitchells lease in the county are still owned by the Peterson, Adams, Smiths, Woodall and Beckett families — all former farmers themselves. The Beckett family sold their farm. The Adams family still raises their own cattle but no longer do any farming.

Taken together, the land the Mitchells operate under lease comprises the biggest farm enterprise in Denton County, and one of about five that still have a single family handling all the work. But as they drive along the farm roads abutting their fences, the Mitchells cringe seeing all the "Coming Soon!" signs sprouting across the prairie announcing new subdivisions that will consume yet another neighbor's farm and a way of life that is irreplaceable.

Within two years, another 2,000 acres of Justin's farmland will be turned into 855 houses, according to signs posted by the developers of Harvest by Hillwood Communities. The starting price for these homes is $270,000.

The grim reaper

For Mitchell, his uncle and his father who have made a modest living — between $20,000 and $40,000 per year — growing milo and wheat and raising purebred Charolais cattle, the housing developments are a grim reaper for farmers. As real estate skyrockets in Denton County, so do property taxes, making it impossible for farmers who own the land to make a living off the land. That's why so many farmers in Denton County have already thrown in the towel, says Mitchell.

Travis Mitchell removes the nozzle from the truck, spilling a little fertilizer. The job of a farmer involves mundane but strenuous work.For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal
Travis Mitchell removes the nozzle from the truck, spilling a little fertilizer. The job of a farmer involves mundane but strenuous work.
For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal

"Land is worth $10,000 per acre and people are selling it by the square foot here," he says. "A farmer couldn't afford to come into this area and decide to buy 10,000 acres."

All of which explains why so many farm families in Denton County are selling out to developers. For example, the 400 acres of pastureland Mitchell and Mason are driving across this morning to reach the Mitchells' hayfield recently was sold by one of the Mitchells' neighbors to a housing developer called Bloomfield Homes.

As tenant farmers, the Mitchells are tormented by the rapid transformation of fertile farm land into residential subdivisions, strip shopping malls and commercial buildings. But since they only rent the land, they have no control over the development. All they can do is lament when the owner of the land sells it for something other than growing crops or raising cattle.

"You aren't in this for the money," Mason says. "You can make more money at McDonald's and can get benefits. You have to love what you do."

Mitchell's grandparents moved to Justin in 1959, when the town had a population of about 500 people, mostly farmers. But by 2005, urbanization and industrialization left an indelible mark on the Mitchell family. Mitchell's grandfather Doc Mitchell sold his 30-acre farm in Justin to General Electric. And GE turned Doc Mitchell's farm into a diesel locomotive manufacturing facility.

But the sale of Grandpa Mitchell's farm didn't persuade the rest of the farmers in the family to abandon their way of life. Travis Mitchell's 68-year-old uncle and 60-year-old father still work shoulder-to-shoulder with him and Mason baling hay, growing milo and tending to the cattle every day.

Though they don't own the land, they treat it like they do. Seventy years of farming has forged a deep and abiding respect for the farmland that has nurtured and sustained their way of life for three generations. Despite rampant development, Travis Mitchell vows he'll never give up his plow.

"Nobody made me be a farmer," he says. "It's what I love and it's what I do. I couldn't imagine doing anything else."

Working the hayfield

It takes Travis Mitchell and Mason only a few minutes to drive their beat-up pickup from the homestead to the hayfield. Mitchell whistles along to a country tune playing on the radio.

A small herd of white purebred Charolais cattle are a part of an overall herd of about 200 head the Mitchell family maintain. A donkey helps protect young calves from coyotes.For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal
A small herd of white purebred Charolais cattle are a part of an overall herd of about 200 head the Mitchell family maintain. A donkey helps protect young calves from coyotes.
For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal

Driving across a pothole-strewn prairie, sundry curios jangle inside the pickup, mixing a discordant tune with the country melody. A pair of binoculars rests atop the dashboard, next to a gray baseball cap imprinted with the Mitchell Farms logo. A box of ammo for Travis Mitchell's .223 Remington rifle is stored between the car seats. A toolbox and lasso lie on the pickup's torn cushions in the back seat.

The static of a walkie-talkie interrupts the soothing country music. Travis Mitchell and Mason are volunteer firefighters with the Justin Fire Department. As such, they have to put up with the dispatcher's cacophony as she sends messages across dozens of walkie-talkies to all the volunteers.

When the farmers finally reach the hayfield, Mason jumps out of the pickup, saunters over to what the farmers call their green — a John Deere tractor — revs up the engine and gets to work rounding up bales of hay.

Using two long lifts jutting out of the front of the green giant, Mason gently places a mammoth roll of hay over a round bin. Mitchell cuts the net holding the hay together, releasing the hay into a feeding trough. A cluster of 15 white cows and calves milling about 30 feet away belly up to the trough for their breakfast.

When the job is done, Travis Mitchell and Mason jump into their pickup. For the rest of the day, they'll travel to each farm, repeating the baling and feeding regimen all over again at their seven other farms. At sunset, they'll have completed their mission: to inspect, feed and otherwise care for the needs of the family's 200 cows.

Way of life sacrificed at altar of development

Mitchell Farms extends across a sizable expanse of Denton County, from State Highway 114 in Justin to I-35W near Ponder — an area about 12 miles long and 18 miles wide. En route to another farm on FM156, another giant billboard announces yet another upscale housing complex. The Mitchells have come to accept a harsh reality: Their agrarian way of life in Denton County will soon be sacrificed on the altar of development.

Travis Mitchell prepares to fill up a truck with fertilizer from giant silos. Now that it is springtime, the Mitchells are getting ready to plant milo and wheat, which the farming family sells along with cattle.For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal
Travis Mitchell prepares to fill up a truck with fertilizer from giant silos. Now that it is springtime, the Mitchells are getting ready to plant milo and wheat, which the farming family sells along with cattle.
For the DRC/Lauren Rosenthal

"You just hope it comes in a timely manner and not all at once," Travis Mitchell says.

Eventually, the Mitchells realize they will have to move, and they've already planned for that day. They purchased 3,000 acres north of where they farm now — in Cooke County. The Mitchells lease their land in Cooke County to other tenant farmers. But 3,000 acres isn't enough land to sustain the family of six and feed the herd of 200 cows. The Mitchells would either have to sell some cows, take out loans to lease more land, or get jobs elsewhere.

As they drive from farm to farm, Mitchell and Mason wave at other drivers. Some don't wave back. The farmers lament that their quaint tradition — a pleasant wave to a neighbor — is disappearing as fast as the farmland and their way of life.

"We're a nuisance to them," Mitchell sighs. "They don't care anything about us. They don't wave down the road to everybody. We're in their way."