Down on the Farm

This little epistle is about the Luling Foundation Farm and the role it plays in helping educate area farmers and ranchers. So why should farming matter to Texas Master Naturalists?  It’s no accident that Texas AgriLife Extension is a co-sponsor of our organization.  Do you think it possible for a farmer/rancher to be successful today without practicing conservation and sensibly using our natural resources?  Most of our state’s celebrated land stewards are farmers or ranchers.  Who better to understand the local weather patterns, the morphology of animals and plants, pests and pathogens or the effects of environment on our ecosystems and sustainability?

Even though, as an organization, our activities are not joined at the hip with the Luling Foundation, there is call for us to support and appreciate the role they play. More on that later; first I want to share with you the convoluted way I got to thinking about all this.

Alvin Toffler was a journalist, educator and futurist. I remember having been assigned his book Future Shock as mandatory reading in the 1970’s.  The book posited that the rate of technological change in our society would increase exponentially with time.  In support of this hypothesis, Mr. Toffler distinguished three stages in the development of society and production:  agrarian, industrial and post-industrial.  I think about that book a lot these days, but not for the reasons you might expect: I’ve been around long enough to have participated in all three of these social transformations.

While it is true that I missed the early days of one or two-acre plots plowed by oxen and planted by hand, in the great sweep of history it was not by all that much! My parents were farmers but had to give it up before I came of age.  I returned later, as a teenager, to work the summers on our neighbor’s place. Like many farms, it took all the efforts of an extended family to make a go of it.  There were actually three generations working side-by-side on this family-owned land.  The elder patriarch—a German immigrant known as “gramps”—frequently worked with a team of horses, juxtapositioned next to tractors and modern machinery of the time. He was near the end of his life and I remember marveling that he had lived to see a historically significant passage. He was the end of an era, in the embrace of this great change and, thankfully, I was mature enough to recognize that it was his shoulders upon which we were all standing. I often wonder what gramps would have thought about ConAgri or Cargill today.

Modern farming is so far superior to gramps’ primitive methods—it really does seem farming has advanced exponentially. Today’s farms are so much more efficient, harnessing technology to produce crops with more yield and less water, energy or land. Livestock production is a sophisticated system drawing on science, genetics and carefully engineered outcomes. Modern farmers use advanced electronics with enhanced connectivity to automate their operations. They rely on continuous improvements in digital tools and data, as well as collaborations among farmers and researchers across the public and private sectors.

There is a perception that large corporate farms have run all the small family-owned farms out of business. In fact, 97 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the U.S. are family-owned and 88 percent of all farms are small family farms with less than $350k in gross cash farm income, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. A family-owned or small farm can struggle to keep up with technology. That’s where the Luling Foundation comes in.

When you visit the small town of Luling, Texas the first thing you notice is the terrible stench in the air—a smell like rotting eggs. It’s a by-product of the tremendously successful oil drilling in the area; it’s the smell of money!  The man responsible for discovering this underground treasure was one Edgar B. Davis, also responsible for putting Luling on the map.  Already successful beyond most men’s dreams, Davis set aside a million dollars in 1926 to create a demonstration farm on 1,223 acres of an old cotton plantation west of town.  Its purpose was to show commonsense conservation and farming techniques that any farmer could put into practice on his land. The farm sported field crops, pecan and fruit trees, pastures and livestock.

A foundation was created to manage the endowment created by Mr. Davis. It was controlled by a board of seven trustees and operated by a general manager—a structure which continues to this day. The foundation insisted that the farm be operated like a business, allowing only the programs and techniques that proved profitable to continue. Initially, the Luling Foundation was charged with helping the farmers and stock raisers of Caldwell, Gonzales and Guadalupe counties.  Since its creation, however, services have expanded throughout the state and have even attracted visitors from other countries.

How could a demonstration farm command such a draw? The Luling Foundation Farm is really a destination experience; you have to go there and see for yourself to really understand everything they do.  A group from our chapter made such a trip several years ago, ostensibly to tend to a “butterfly garden” LPMN had previously planted on the grounds. I remember the day fondly. The sun that morning fell in heavy, flat planks.  The dew on the fields sparkled like beads. We were greeted warmly, a lively discussion ensued exploring areas of common interest and we were then treated to a nearly hour-long tour of the property by the manager. He was a man of expansive personality—very enthusiastic and proud of the operation.  Here’s some of what we learned.

The foundation sponsors annual field and topic-specific trips (Youth Farm Safety Day and Kids Farm Camp among them) and offers facilities for meetings and group tours. Commitment to youth groups and those interested in agricultural subjects is evidenced by hosting 4H & Future Farmers of America projects and through their Youth Agricultural Loan Program and frequent donations to tri-county youth programs.  The foundation also provides scholarships for careers in agriculture, healthcare and vocational trades.

In addition to these outreach-type of functions, the Luling Foundation Farm immerses itself in the science of cutting-edge farming techniques.

There is a special Black Angus cattle herd started in 2000 that combines use of performance data and characteristics resulting from the interaction of genotype and the environment (i.e., phenotype) to create the highest quality breeding bulls and cows. The farm sports native and improved orchards, improved grasses, row crops, conservation tillage, warm and cool season forages, sustainable gardens as well as recreation and wildlife farming. Students and visitors can learn about truck farming techniques (peaches, plums, oranges & sweet corn), rainwater harvesting, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Continuous Conservation Reserve Program and how to harness the power of the sun to run water wells and other utilities on the farm.

There’s a clear fit among the farm’s objectives and a host of similar-minded organizations. Partners include county AgriLife Extension offices, state agencies like Texas Department of Agriculture & TPWD, and federal agencies ranging from USDA to the National Weather Service.  If you are a farmer/rancher in search of the best ideas in agriculture in Texas, the Luling Foundation Farm can either show you how it’s done or get you to the place you need to be.

Isn’t this what everybody seeks: to be a part of something meaningful, to contribute to a better mankind, to feed the passion in your soul? While lifetimes are finite, ideas and discoveries can live on.  If gramps could visit this demonstration farm today, he would beam with pride at realizing his DNA is integral to its success. Similarly, if Edgar Davis could know all the people his endowment has touched and transformed, it would surely bring tears to his eyes.  As Texas Master Naturalists, although we may not share a direct link to the mission of this organization, we can all respect the miracle of evolution, for this is certainly evidence of it. And, as Mr. Toffler pointed out, it’s easier to see miracles the older you become.

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