Texas is losing its productive agricultural land, and Denton County is no exception. Locals who own land in Denton County are voicing their concerns about the area's changing landscape. Some assert that owning land today is getting harder.
From 1997 to 2012, Texas lost 1.1 million acres of working agricultural land, according to Texas Land Trends, an organization that monitors and compiles data for Texas from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Agriculture Statistics Service.
Furthermore, Texas — a state often associated with cowboys, farmers and ranchers — leads the nation in the loss of farm and ranch land. Denton County alone saw about a 14 percent loss of working lands from 1997 to 2012, amounting to about 58,000 acres, according to Texas Land Trends.
Farmers and ranchers gathered Thursday night at Ben E. Keith Co.'s meeting room in Denton to discuss agricultural law with attorney Tiffany Lashmet, a specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.
At the meeting, topics up for discussion included fence law, Waters of the United States, drone laws and the right to farm, among other issues. The meeting was an open educational forum on what landowners, farmers and ranchers should watch for when dealing with the legal issues regarding their farms and ranches.
Many landowners have creeks and ponds on their properties. Lashmet brought up the topic of the Waters of the U.S. rule to explain when someone is or isn't trespassing on private land. The determinant, she said, is if the waterway is considered navigable or not.
Drones were up for discussion, and Lashmet advised locals not to shoot down intruding drones hovering above their land.
Mineral rights were given attention because of a direct affect on Denton County landowners.
Lashmet advised landowners to get all lease agreements in writing, and to especially pay attention to mineral rights as part of a lease. Landowners can sever mineral rights from a lease or sale agreement, leaving farmers and ranchers unable to be compensated for gas drilling on the land they use.
“Thirty years ago, we didn’t care. What changed?” Lashmet said at the meeting. “The F-word: fracking.”
Hydraulic fracturing, a technique that involves injecting liquid deep into the earth to help access hard-to-reach natural gas, was temporarily banned by Denton voters in November 2014. The ban was lifted shortly after in 2015. Denton is again legally fracking-friendly.
The Denton Plan 2030, the city's long-range growth and development plan, projects the city’s population will double by 2030.
Denton's newcomers need places to live, but oftentimes the land slated for housing development is land that has been owned and operated on largely by farmers and ranchers, who have seen their land annexed into the city limits. Because of recent aggressive annexations around the Denton, many agricultural landowners have seen their taxes go up in recent years.
“A lot of times when we have urbanization, that drives up property values, which then in turn has an increase in property taxes in the area,” Lashmet said in a phone interview before the meeting. “And that’s certainly very important in an area like in Denton where, if those farmers had to pay those taxes based on the fair market value of their land, it would far exceed what they would make profit-wise from agriculture.”
When land is annexed into a city, it’s almost inevitable that a property owner’s taxes will rise. Shirley and Jonathan “JB” Haisler are a testament to that assertion, having been annexed into the city of Sanger over 20 years ago.
Not only have their taxes gone up since they bought their land 50 years ago, but the way they live has changed. Shirley Haisler said she is concerned for the future of their land, which the couple hope to pass it down to their family.
"We grew up on a farm and just loved the land," she said. "We inherited the desire to [farm]. My dad farmed until he was 88 years old when he passed away, and he loved it. He wouldn't do anything else."
With increased city taxes, though, keeping 282 acres might prove to be tougher than it was in 1967 because “there’s a lot more rules,” she said.
“The amount that they’ve appraised it at has doubled, so we’re protesting it because we don’t see how it could possibly double in a year,” Haisler said about the value of their acreage. “It doesn’t. Land does not double in a year.”
Other concerns for the couple are people and utilities crossing their land.
“We have trespassers, for one, and we always have pipelines coming across our properties,” Haisler said, mentioning water and electrical lines on another Denton County property partly owned by JB. The Haislers have dealt with trespassers hunting and fishing on their land without permission.
“We wouldn’t mind them doing it if they would come and ask,” Shirley said. But they don’t ask, and they trespass anyway.
Along with folks like the Haislers who have owned land for decades are newcomers to the world of agriculture, who may be inexperienced in a changing time for the industry.
“We have a lot of people that are new to [agriculture] that don’t understand it, that don’t understand that this AgriLife office even exists,” said David Annis, an AgriLife Extension agent for the county. “What we’re looking at these days is we have people that don’t understand [agriculture], but they own land.”
This may partly be due to the complexity of agricultural law, among other factors. In holding the agricultural law meeting on Thursday, Annis and the AgriLife Extension group were looking to educate locals and answer their many questions.
Annis said in an interview that the only constant he’s seen with agriculture since he started working in the industry in 1988 is that “no two operations are identical.” Because of that, a lot of times agriculture can require lots of problem solving, especially in dealing with legal issues.
“You'd best have an understanding of the law and how it can come back and get you,” Annis said.