By: Henry C. Dethloff and Garry L. Nall

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: September 29, 2020

Modern Texas agriculture evolved from the agriculture of prehistoric Texans and agricultural practices transferred from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Crops native to North America included the food staples corn, beans, and squash, and such diverse vegetables as tomatoes, "Irish" potatoes, chili peppers, yams, peanuts, and pumpkins. Spanish colonists introduced wheat, oats, barley, onions, peas, watermelons, and domestic animals, including cattle, horses, and hogs.

Prior to European settlement, most of Texas was occupied by nomadic hunting and gathering groups for whom agriculture was peripheral. When Europeans first arrived, however, advanced agriculture existed among the Caddo Indians in the east and in the pueblo cultures concentrated in New Mexico. The Caddos lived in permanent villages and depended for food primarily on the cultivation of corn, beans, and squash, with hunting and gathering to supplement the crops. They prepared fields for planting by burning and girdling, and cultivated with wooden hoes, stones, and sharpened sticks. In extreme west Texas, pueblo cultures also depended heavily on corn, beans, and squash, raised cotton for fiber, and practiced irrigation.

Livestock industries, predominantly for cattle, sheep, goat, and hog production, developed in Spanish Texas. Farming was largely limited to small garden plots adjacent to missions and settlements-San Antonio, El Paso (Ysleta), and Nacogdoches, for instance. By 1727 a 2½-mile irrigation ditch was watering fields and gardens in San Antonio. Ranching and farming expanded only slightly in Texas over the next 100 years, since Comanches, Apaches, and other nomadic and warring tribes dominated the land.

After its independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico encouraged settlement in its vast provinces north of the Rio Grande. Moses Austin secured the first empresario or colonial grants from Spain. His son, Stephen F. Austin, initially led 300 families from the United States into an area extending from the Gulf Coast into Central Texas. Settlers received a sitio or square league of land (about 4,338 acres) for grazing, and a labor (177 acres) of farming land. The American settlers quickly introduced the slave-based cotton-plantation system, expanded commercial livestock production, and developed concentrations of small, nonslaveholding family farms. The large influx of Anglo-American settlers led to the Texas revolt, the independence of Texas, and the subsequent war between the United States and Mexico, followed by the admission of Texas into the Union.

As time passed the essentially pastoral character of Texas agriculture became more heavily a plow and commercial system. The plantation system, small family farming, and the range cattle industry expanded rapidly between 1836 and the Civil War. Annual cattle drives were being made from points in south central Texas south and east along the Opelousas Trail to New Orleans, and on the Old Government Road to Little Rock and Fort Smith, Arkansas; and on other trails or extensions to Alexandria and Shreveport, Louisiana, or Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1846 Edward Piper drove a herd of Texas cattle to Ohio. In the 1850s Texas herds were being driven to Chicago and Illinois markets, to California, and to railheads in Iowa. The value of livestock on Texas farms rose from about $10.5 million to $43 million between 1850 and 1860.

The cotton-plantation system, concentrated in south central Texas on the lower Colorado, Brazos, and Trinity rivers, generated much of the state's agricultural production before the Civil War. Cotton production rose massively from 58,000 bales in 1850 to over 431,000 bales in 1860. Numbers of slaves grew from 58,161 to 182,566 in the same period, while the total population approximately tripled, from 212,592 to 604,215. The primary export was cotton; cattle were second.

Most agriculture before the Civil War involved small, subsistence family farms. The great majority of people were nonslaveholders. Germans established small farms and communities such as New Braunfels, Brenham, and Boerne. Czechs settled heavily in Fayette and Brazos counties. Other settlers streamed in from the South and Midwest and spread across the Blackland Prairies and Cross Timbers of north central Texas by 1860.

Agricultural practices on the small farm, which typically ranged in size from 120 to 160 acres, varied from purely pastoral to a combination of pastoral, crop, and garden farming. Hunting and gathering provided an important supplement to family food provisions. In Washington County a farmer with 120 acres might be expected to use 100 acres for unfenced cattle and hog raising, firewood gathering, and hunting. Of the remaining twenty acres, ten to twelve would ordinarily be devoted to corn, a staple for both human beings and farm animals. An acre or less might be used variously for sweet sorghum or sugarcane, a fruit orchard, home garden and herb plot, and tobacco. Cash income, always minimal, came from the cultivation and harvest of two or three acres of cotton.

Farms and plantations primarily utilized teams of oxen for plowing, and occasionally horses or mules. Mules became much more prevalent after the Civil War. Plows were fabricated locally, or, when cash was available, farmers might import farm equipment such as the Eagle plow through New Orleans and Galveston. Commerce generally depended on wagons to and from the port of Galveston; some produce was floated down the rivers. Although steamboat transportation and railroad construction began in Texas before the Civil War, river steamer and rail transportation were generally postwar developments.

After the war the traditional cotton plantation system continued, but with tenant farmers in place of slaves. Tenants were both black and White, but the latter far outnumbered the former by 1880. As the economy became more of a money-based system, small farmers increasingly slipped into tenancy or left farming. Generally, in tenant farming the landlord or planter contracted with the tenant for the cultivation of a small plot of land (usually in the range of 16–20 acres) on which the tenant was expected to raise as much cotton as possible. The planter ordinarily received one-third of the income from the crop for supplying the land, and one-third for provisioning the farmer with tools and housing, while the tenant received one-third for the labor. Credit was extremely expensive and scarce for the planter and disabling for the tenant, who commonly ended a year more deeply in debt than before.

Despite the difficulties, the number of farms in Texas rose from about 61,000 in 1870 to 174,000 in 1880 and 350,000 by 1900. Stimulated largely by the extension of railroads throughout Texas between 1870 and 1900, farm and ranching enterprises expanded rapidly as emphasis on commercial production and marketing grew. Subsistence farming and small farm operations declined. Cattle and cotton production dominated farming operations through the remainder of the nineteenth century, but wheat, rice, sorghum, hay, and dairying became important.

Under the terms of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, approved on July 2, 1862, Texas established the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas (later Texas A&M University), which began operation near Bryan in 1876. A&M College established the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in January 1886 and sponsored instructional farmers' institutes throughout Texas beginning in 1889. Dr. Mark Francis, the veterinarian for the experiment station, initiated research that helped lead to the eradication of Texas fever in cattle and greatly improved livestock production everywhere. He also headed efforts to establish a school of veterinary medicine, which opened under the auspices of A&M College with Francis as dean in September 1916.

A&M sponsored the organization of a Texas Farmers' Congress, which met annually on the campus between 1898 and 1915. The congress, in turn, sponsored a Farm Boys' and Girls' Progressive League (1903), which became the predecessor of the 4-H Club. In cooperation with Seaman A. Knapp, a special agent of the United States Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry, Texas A&M established a demonstration farm program at Greenville and Terrell in September 1903. In 1905 the college assumed responsibility for the greatly expanded demonstration farm program and appointed special agents to direct demonstration farm work. This activity became the impetus for the development of formal cooperative extension farm programs, entered into by agreements between the college and the United States Department of Agriculture. Cooperative extension work became a national farm program under the terms of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which established the Agricultural Extension Service.

Advanced cultivation practices, improved plant varieties, the mechanization of agriculture, and the greater availability of capital contributed to both higher yields and increased acreage in cultivation. Bonanza farming and large-scale cattle operations, often funded by foreign investors, developed in Texas in the 1880s. Many of these ventures failed in the depression of the 1890s. New corporate operations developed intermittently after 1900.

After the Civil War falling prices, high credit and transportation costs, and after 1893 a national depression, precipitated farm organization and revolt. Although some farmers in the state joined the Grange (the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry), first established in 1867 in the Midwest, Texas participation in that group was weak. The Grange sought to impose state regulation on railroad freight rates and grain-elevator charges, to lower credit costs and put more money in circulation, and to reduce tariffs on nonfarm products. Texas farmers began to seek these measures through their own association, the Farmers' Alliance, which originated in Lampasas County in 1872. Under the leadership of Charles W. Macune, the Texas Farmers' Alliance embraced the Grange objectives and stressed the development of farm cooperatives.

The merger of the Texas Farmers' Alliance and the Louisiana Farmers' Union in January 1887 resulted in the creation of the National Farmers' Alliance and Industrial Union of America (better known as the Southern Alliance). This organization grew rapidly throughout the South and into the Midwest. The independent Colored Farmers' Alliance and Cooperative Union was organized in Houston in 1886. These organizations, like the Northern Farmers' Alliance, advocated paper money as legal tender, the unlimited coinage of silver, government control or ownership of railroads and telegraph systems, lower tariffs, a graduated income tax, the Australian or secret ballot, and the direct election of United States senators, as well as expanded public education. The Alliance movement, in turn, led to the organization of a national farmers' political party called the People's party of America or Populist party. Although the party generally failed to achieve its objectives, by the time of its demise after 1896 Populism had began to influence the programs of the major political parties.

Prosperity returned to Texas farmers in the first two decades of the twentieth century. As both rapid urbanization in the United States and the advent of World War I increased the demand for agricultural commodities, their prices rose more rapidly than those of nonfarm goods and services. Because of the resulting favorable economic position for farmers, between 1900 and 1920 the number of cultivated acres on Texas farms grew from fifteen to twenty-five million. Cotton production expanded from 3.4 to 4.3 million bales, and corn stabilized at approximately 100 million bushels, though it declined afterwards. The value of livestock more than doubled, from $240 to $590 million. Rice farming, which had been introduced in the 1880s on the Coastal Plains, produced nine million bushels annually by 1910. Wheat, introduced to Texas near Sherman in 1833, had emerged as a major export by 1900; production and milling centered in the north central area, around Fort Worth, Dallas, and Sherman.

Such favorable conditions brought further expansion to the state's agricultural system. In South Texas land promoters launched campaigns to attract investors to the lower Rio Grande valley and the Winter Garden Region. With mild winters and available irrigation water from the Rio Grande, the area became one of the state's most prolific farm sections. By first planting sour orange rootstocks in 1908, Charles Volz and others such as John H. Shary launched the citrus fruit industry in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy counties, where, by 1929, 85 percent of the five million trees were grapefruit. Furthermore, those same counties, with the Winter Garden area to the north, became a major site for commercial truck farming of such vegetables as onions, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, beets, and spinach.

During the same period the High Plains also emerged as a major area for crop production. As cattlemen placed their large ranches on the market, cheap land prices in an area without the boll weevil made the region particularly attractive to cotton farmers. With the development of cotton types adapted to the plains environment by scientists at the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station at Lubbock, the planting of hard red winter wheat varieties, and the widespread adoption of the tractor, the one-way disk plow, and the combine, the High Plains became one of the state's premier areas for both cotton and wheat production by the end of the 1920s.

By that time the basic structure of the state's modern farming system appeared to be in place. While livestock producers focused upon raising cattle, sheep, and goats on the grazing areas that covered approximately 70 percent of the state's acreage, farmers grew crops on 17.5 percent of the land. Cotton, planted on 60 percent of the state's cultivated acreage, outdistanced all other commodities as a cash crop. Though it was grown in most areas of the state, the heaviest concentration was on the Blackland Prairies, the Coastal Plains around Corpus Christi, and the Southern High Plains. Acreage devoted to corn was usually second to cotton in the eastern half of the state, while sorghum was the leading livestock feed in the western half. Wheat, which was produced most extensively on the Northern High Plains and in the counties along the Red River, led the small grains and ranked second to cotton in cash-crop receipts. Besides the citrus and vegetable industries in South Texas, such truck-farming goods as tomatoes, watermelons, and peas were marketed in northeastern Texas. On the Coastal Prairie rice was raised, and timber was important in the Piney Woods of East Texas. In most areas of the state cropland was interspersed with pastureland; stock farming was therefore more common than other farming.

Texas farmers like those throughout the nation experienced hard times during the 1920s. The decade began with the agricultural crisis of 1920–21, when postwar commodity surpluses caused a sharp decline in the prices farmers received for their crops. Instead of making efforts to curb production, farmers turned to various panaceas to remedy their plight. Some joined marketing cooperatives such as the Texas Wheat Growers Association or the Texas Farm Bureau Cotton Association, in which producers pooled their harvests with the hope of forcing processors to negotiate prices. Others sought to cut costs by replacing draft animals with tractors and increasing their crop acreage.

Yet the imbalance in the marketplace continued on to the end of the decade, thus contributing to the economic catastrophe of the Great Depression. The number of farms in Texas increased from 436,038 in 1920 to 495,489 ten years later, while cropland harvested grew by 3.5 million acres. Despite the surpluses, the acreage planted in wheat virtually doubled, from 2.4 million to 4.7 million, and cotton acreage increased from 12.9 million to 16.6 million. As wheat prices plunged from $2.04 to thirty-three cents per bushel, income declined from $41 million in 1920 to $9.4 million in 1932; cotton sales receipts dropped from $376 million to $140 million between 1920 and 1932, as the price fell from seventeen cents to less than six cents a pound. The farmers' plight grew even worse when a drought accompanied by high winds brought about the Dust Bowl, which was particularly severe on the High Plains, where crop production virtually halted. With these developments rural poverty spread across Texas.

The implementation of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal farm programs had both an immediate and long-range impact upon the Texas agricultural system. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 launched a series of programs designed to control surpluses and to maintain a minimum level of income. For such basic commodities as cotton, corn, wheat, rice, hogs, and milk, farmers accepted acreage allotments and marketing quotas and engaged in soil conservation practices, in exchange for receiving payments or guarantees of parity prices through nonrecourse loans. In addition, the availability of both long and short term credit through agencies of the Farm Credit Administration made money more accessible. Furthermore, the Soil Conservation Service was established to awaken farmers to the need of protecting their land through such techniques as terracing, contour listing, strip cropping, and the maintenance of vegetative cover.

The combination of the government programs and the nation's involvement in World War II laid the basis for a major shift in the structure of Texas agriculture. First, farm tenancy declined from 60 percent of the state's farm operators in 1930 to 37.6 percent fifteen years later, as some landowners took advantage of government checks and cheap credit to replace tenants with machines. Furthermore, the rapid growth of good industrial jobs in urban areas during the war years contributed to a decrease in farm population from 2.16 million to 1.52 million and a loss of approximately 115,000 farm units in the ten years following 1935, when farms had numbered a half million. Yet farm income grew from approximately $500 million to $1.1 billion as wartime demand forced prices higher. The improved economic situation for Texas farmers, along with a guarantee of 90 percent of parity prices for at least two years after the war, set the stage for the modernization of the Texas agricultural system.

A major step towards the transformation of Texas farm life occurred with increased mechanization. The foremost factor in this change was the emergence of the tractor. Though steam tractors had been introduced at the turn of the century and gasoline tractors had appeared before World War I, mules and horses remained a common source of power until the 1940s. However, both the growth in farm income and the enhanced versatility of the all-purpose tractor contributed to the virtual elimination of draft animals from Texas farms. The increase in tractor horsepower in subsequent years from forty to as much as 200 or more permitted the use of larger auxiliary equipment. The one and two row implements of the World War II era were replaced with breaking plows, listers, tandem disks, rotary hoes, grain drills, and other tools that could cover up to sixteen rows, thus allowing a farmer to till or seed as much as 200 acres in a day.

In addition, major innovations in harvesting equipment further transformed Texas farming. By the 1920s the general acceptance of the combine, capable of doing the work of a binder or header and a thresher, spurred the expansion of wheat production in the state. Whether owned by individual farmers or itinerant custom cutters, the combine underwent a series of technical improvements after World War II that ranged from the replacement of the tractor-drawn models with self-propelled machines to the enlargement of the header size from six feet to thirty feet and the development of attachments that allowed for cutting grain sorghum, corn, and similar commodities, all of which increased the farmers' efficiency and versatility. In addition, machines for harvesting hay, spinach, potatoes, beans, sugar beets, pecans, peanuts, and other commodities reduced much of the labor requirements for producers.

The marketing of mechanical cotton harvesters in the 1940s represented a major breakthrough in production. Almost immediately the use of spindle-type pickers and roll or finger strippers reduced the labor requirements for producing and gathering an acre of cotton from an average of 150 to 6.5 man hours. Once engineers had refined some of the technical problems with harvesting and gin equipment and scientists had developed cotton varieties that could be gathered more easily, as well as herbicides and defoliants that eliminated much of the weed and leaf trash prior to ginning, farmers acquired enough machines that by the late 1960s cotton production was almost fully mechanized. Furthermore, as a reduction in the number of gins delayed processing, during the 1970s inventors developed the module, which by compacting the crop in the field postponed the ginning without causing damage. By the 1990s most Texas cotton was machine harvested and processed, with approximately one-fourth gathered by spindle pickers, three-fourths collected by strippers, and 70 percent ginned from modules.

While advances in mechanization allowed farm operators to handle more land with less labor, the expansion of irrigation after World War II greatly enhanced the state's agricultural productivity. Although approximately 900,000 acres was being watered in 1939, primarily from surface sources in the lower Rio Grande valley, the Winter Garden, the Coastal Prairie, and the Trans-Pecos regions, the major thrust for crop irrigation developed when farmers of the High Plains who had suffered through the Dust Bowl began tapping the Ogallala Aquifer extensively. The availability of financial resources and equipment technology initially spurred the drilling of wells and the installation of furrow systems utilizing drainage ditches and plastic, rubber, or aluminum siphon tubes in the shallow-water belt south of the Canadian River. However, after operators north of the river observed how irrigation enhanced yields by 50 or 60 percent, permitted greater crop diversification, and provided production stability even in the drought years of the 1950s, they too drilled wells and installed ditches or center-pivot sprinkler systems. In 1979, when the state's irrigated acreage reached a high of 7.8 million-a third of all of the Texas land in production-87 percent of the watered land was located on the High Plains, where farmers received approximately 40 percent of the state's cash crop receipts.

In conjunction with such capital investments, Texas farmers who recognized that profitability depended upon achieving higher crop yields at reduced labor costs readily incorporated the application of chemicals as part of their agricultural programs. The use of fertilizers, particularly ammonia-based and nitrogen products, generally enhanced commodity returns. Furthermore, the introduction of herbicides at the preplanting, preemergence, or postemergence of the crops usually reduced weed growth and cut labor expenses. In addition, insecticides applied by tractor-mounted equipment or by aircraft helped lessen damages inflicted by insects and diseases.

As farming became more complex after World War II, the role of research scientists and advisors from the state and federal agricultural experiment stations, the colleges of agriculture, and the cooperative extension services expanded. Besides supplying operators with information about effective methods or discoveries, the researchers' success in developing higher-yielding crop varieties had an immense influence upon the state's production. By the 1980s their efforts contributed to the rise of average wheat yields from ten bushels to thirty bushels an acre; irrigated semidwarf winter varieties exceeded 100 bushels per acre, corn production grew from 15 to 120 bushels per acre, rice from 2,000 pounds to 4,600 pounds per acre, and cotton from approximately 200 pounds to 400 pounds per acre on dry land and 500 pounds on watered acreage.

A prime example of the impact of agricultural research was demonstrated with the emergence of grain sorghum as a major Texas commercial crop. Sorghum varieties such as hegari and kafir, originally planted in the state's more arid western areas due to their drought-resistant qualities, were grown for livestock forage; hand-cut milo maize was fed as a grain. Marketing sorghum as a feed grain began in the late 1940s, when breeders succeeded in reducing the plant's height so as to permit harvesting with a combine and farmers with irrigation discovered the prolific nature of the crop when watered. Yet this was only a beginning, for after several years of experimentation researchers introduced hybrid grain sorghum, which was first distributed for planting in 1957. Immediately, average yields of 1,200 pounds an acre doubled, and as improved varieties were bred farmers of irrigated milo maize frequently harvested as much as 5,000 pounds per acre. Though production centered on the High Plains initially, the lower Rio Grande valley, the Coastal Bend, the Blackland Prairies, and the Rolling Plains also became regions where the crop achieved importance.

Grain sorghum hybridization supplied the impetus for the rise of the cattle-feeding industry on the High Plains. In the area where cattle raising thrived and the locally produced feed grain supply was greater than the demand by the 1960s, entrepreneurs and promoters conceived the idea of combining the two resources to prepare beef animals for slaughter. By the end of the decade large feedlots capable of handling several thousand animals had been erected and expanded to the extent that in the early 1970s more than three million head were being marketed annually. With 70 percent of the cattle being fattened on the High Plains, Texas became the leader of fed-cattle production in the nation.

The cattle-feeding industry stimulated the resurrection of corn as an important commodity in Texas. Though corn was a major household-food and livestock-feed crop from the time of initial settlement of the state, acreage devoted to its production declined after World War II as reliance upon animal power dwindled. However, when skyrocketing sorghum prices threatened the profitability of the cattle-feeding industry after a trading agreement with the Soviet Union in 1973, High Plains irrigation farmers turned to corn hybrids. With normal yields in excess of 100 bushels of grain per acre plus the silage, growers found that they could achieve a good return on their investment and meet the requirements of the feeders. Besides serving as a cattle feed, corn was valuable as a sweetener, starch, and fuel. The lower Rio Grande valley, the Coastal Plains, and the Blackland Prairies also became centers for corn production.

Just as scientific and technological achievements had influenced corn raising, they gave farmers a greater flexibility in crop selection. Along with the introduction of commercial vegetable and sunflower production on the High Plains, sugar beets emerged as a valuable crop there during the 1960s, following the erection of the Holly Sugar Company plant at Hereford, Deaf Smith County. Soybeans, which normally were grown in the humid region of the Upper Coastal Plain, fared well in Hale County on the High Plains as well as in Northeast Texas. In addition to the vegetable and citrus industries in the Valley, sugarcane reemerged as a crop in the late 1970s. The Spanish and, after 1973, the Florunner varieties of peanuts, the production of which had been centered in such north central Texas counties as Comanche and Eastland for decades, flourished in sandy soils on the High Plains, while commercial orchards in thirty counties of Central and West Texas propelled the state to second place in the production of pecans. By the 1980s wineries had appeared in West Texas as vineyards added an additional commercial crop.

The move towards crop diversification often occurred in reaction to restraints imposed by federal governmental policies. Continuing the goals established in the 1930s of attempting to prevent the accumulation of price-depressing surpluses and to provide stable incomes, such instruments as acreage allotments and marketing quotas remained in use, while such other approaches as set-aside or diversion programs were tried as a means of maintaining control over the production of the basic commodities grown in Texas-wheat, feed grains, cotton, rice, and peanuts. Further long-term limitation efforts included the Soil Bank program of 1956, the 1965 Cropland Adjustment Program, and the Conservation Reserve Program in 1985, by which cropland was removed from production and replaced with grasses or hay. The rewards for participating in such programs came in the form of income or price-support policies that varied from benefit payments for idling acreage to nonrecourse loans for commodities placed in storage. In the 1970s those who cooperated became eligible to receive disaster payments when emergency situations caused crop losses or deficiency payments for those farmers whose average cash receipts for cotton, wheat, corn, sorghum, and oats were less than the target price that political authorities deemed acceptable. After 1940 annual federal governmental payments to Texas farmers ranged from a low of $25 million in the 1950s to a high of $1.4 billion in 1987.

Though the governmental restriction programs applied primarily to crop production, the livestock industry maintained a significant role in Texas agriculture, for cash receipts from livestock and livestock products exceeded crop sales continuously after 1970. In a state where two-thirds of the space was pastureland, beef-cattle enterprises, which normally furnished more income than any other agricultural endeavor, operated in every Texas county. On farms and ranches the basic cow-calf operations, including the breeding of registered animals, prevailed. Though a portion of the calves were maintained on the pastureland, others were either sent to graze on winter wheat from late fall to late winter or went directly or indirectly to feedlots for fattening before slaughter. Another aspect of cattle production, dairying, grew as urbanization spread in the state. With 95 percent of the milk produced east of a line from Wichita Falls to Corpus Christi, large dairy farms often consisted of herds in excess of 100 cows, which gave an average of 15,000 pounds of milk per animal annually. Sheep and goat ranching, with its wool and mohair harvest, continued to be centered on the Edwards Plateau. Along with raising hogs for pork, poultry operations provided income through the sale of eggs and broilers; Angelina and Camp counties in East Texas and Gonzales County in south central Texas were the leading producers.

With the convergence of technological, scientific, economic, and political factors after World War II, large commercial farms and ranches became dominant in the Texas agricultural system. As their operators acquired sophisticated machines that allowed them to handle more acreage with less labor, began to use chemicals and improved seed varieties that enhanced their crop productivity, and introduced livestock and poultry breeding techniques to develop more marketable goods, large numbers of poorly capitalized marginal farmers found the costs beyond their capability and left the profession. Consequently, between 1945 and 1990 the farm population fell from 1.52 million to about 245,000, or 1.1 percent of the state total, and the number of farms declined from 385,000 to 185,000. Yet the average value of farm assets, including land and buildings, rose from approximately $9,000 to $475,000, and the cash receipts from crop and livestock marketings jumped from $1.1 billion to $11.8 billion as the average farm size grew from 367 acres to 700 acres. Though approximately three-fourths of the farms in the state were smaller than 500 acres by 1990, 80 percent of the commodity sales came from 8.7 percent of the farm units, an indication of the impact of the large commercial operations upon agricultural production.

Four areas-the High Plains, the lower Rio Grande valley, the upper Coastal Prairie, and the Blackland Prairies-had become the primary centers for large commercial units by the 1980s. With the exception of the Blackland Prairies, where diversified dry-land stock farms were prevalent, the other regions included heavily capitalized operations with extensive irrigated acreage. In the upper coastal region of Southeast Texas, rice and soybeans generated the most income. The mild winters of the lower Rio Grande valley allowed for a great variety of produce, ranging from citrus fruits and vegetables to cotton, grain sorghum, and corn. On the northern High Plains, where large farms averaged more than 2,000 acres, wheat, grain sorghum, and corn were raised in fields adjacent to mammoth cattle feedlots. A more intensive cropping system in the southern High Plains counties made the area the state's leader in cotton production.

In most of the remaining farm areas of the state, stock farming, which usually combined cattle raising and dry-land raising of wheat, sorghum, or cotton, continued, with variations dependent upon the land and climate. However, major changes did occur in some regions such as East Texas, where the expense of modernization and federal controls upon production caused a shift from small cotton farms to an emphasis upon cattle raising, with hay as the primary crop.

Yet, whether they produced livestock, raised crops, or operated stock farms, Texas agriculturalists found themselves a part of an infrastructure that influenced their actions and decisions. Increasingly, loan officers at such lending institutions as commercial banks, federal land banks, production credit associations, and insurance companies offered advice on planning. Oftentimes, the ability of an array of agribusinessmen from private enterprises or cooperatives to supply such goods and services as implements, seeds, fertilizers, chemicals, fuel, repair facilities, and other necessities affected their decision making. In addition, representatives from federal agencies supervised their compliance with production programs or counseled them on conserving their land. Information gathered by researchers at federal and state agricultural experiment stations, universities, or private firms became available through county agents, farm magazines, radio and television broadcasters, and other sources. Whether farmers raised rice, corn, wheat, cotton, grain sorghum, fruits, livestock, or other commodities, they usually belonged to a general organization such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union, or the American Agriculture Movement, and perhaps to more than one commodity association; both the general organizations and the commodity associations became the farmers' instruments for promoting their interests in political arenas or in marketing their produce.

Marketing also underwent change. Instead of sending their crops and livestock to distant terminal points on railroads, farmers and ranchers profited from the introduction of motor vehicles, particularly trucks, in the 1920s and the subsequent improvement in the roadways, which gave growers more options for delivering their produce directly to nearby gins, elevators, packing sheds, or livestock auctions for sale through cooperatives or to private buyers. Some producers engaged in futures trading through commercial brokers as a hedge against possible price declines. Though much of the produce went to fresh fruit and vegetable markets or cottonseed mills, flour mills, textile mills, meat-packing plants, canneries, or other processors both within the state and outside, the Texas Gulf ports as well as those on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts became the debarkation points for Texas crops sent to all areas of the world. With rice, cotton, cottonseed oil, peanuts, and livestock products as the leading export goods, the annual $2.5 billion international sales of Texas commodities by the 1990s represented approximately 20 percent of the state's cash receipts from crop and livestock marketings.

Lifestyles for Texas farm families changed significantly after World War II. As electricity became available through rural cooperatives, farmers began enjoying the same household conveniences as those who lived in the city. In addition, the construction of farm roads and improved roadways made areas beyond the immediate community more accessible. Besides virtually eliminating the small country stores, the roads made shopping at supermarkets in nearby towns easy; milk cows and laying hens disappeared from many farmsteads. As consolidation programs led to the closing of rural schools, children were bused to larger educational facilities, which usually offered access to more programs than such groups as 4-H Clubs or Future Farmers of America. From the towns young men and women increasingly went to colleges and universities, either to pursue careers in urban areas or to return to their home communities trained in agricultural practices. Though some farmers chose to live in nearby towns and commute to their farms, by the 1980s a majority of Texans residing on farms earned their principal income elsewhere. Along with the advent of radio and television, which both entertained and kept farmers aware of world events and the latest crop and livestock market quotations, such devices as two-way radios and computers became helpful management tools, particularly at large commercial operations.

Even as changes came in the Texas agricultural system, several challenges existed with which farmers and livestock producers had to deal. Regardless of where farming and ranching occurred, environmental or climatic problems had always arisen. In some years there was little rain and in others too much. Sometimes crops suffered when diseases and insects struck. Though the application of scientific and technological practices could ameliorate some of these difficulties, plains farmers felt a sense of hopelessness when their crops were destroyed by hail, for instance; citrus growers in the lower Rio Grande valley saw their orange and grapefruit orchards frozen on four occasions between 1950 and 1990. In addition, the fear of being caught on the wrong side of the cost-price squeeze was ever present. As commercial operators became dependent upon agribusiness suppliers, any variations in costs or slippage in prices oftentimes placed them in jeopardy. For example, the rapid rise in natural gas prices during the 1970s forced both Upland and Pima irrigated cotton producers in Pecos and Reeves counties to reduce their acreage by two-thirds. Besides the costs, irrigation farmers on the High Plains faced the threatened depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, which had made the region one of the most prolific in the state. Despite such remedial efforts as the organization of water-conservation districts, the return of substantial watered acreage to dry land, the institution of minimum tillage techniques, and the installation of more efficient equipment such as the center pivot sprinkler or the low-energy pressure-application systems, the concern remained. Furthermore, though farmers and ranchers recognized that both national and international incidents could influence their livelihood, an element of insecurity existed when political leaders assumed the authority to render decisions affecting agriculture.

Yet even with these and other issues, Texas agriculture remained a vital industry both in the state and the nation at the end of the twentieth century. By the 1990s crop and livestock cash receipts continued to grow. Agricultural receipts of approximately $12 billion combined with agribusinesses to add about $40 billion to the state's economy, thus making Texas one of the leading farm states.


Irvin Milburn Atkins, A History of Small Grain Crops in Texas: Wheat, Oats, Barley, Rice, 1582–1976 (Bulletin 1301, College Station: Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1980). Donna A. Barnes, Farmers in Rebellion: The Rise and Fall of the Southern Farmers Alliance and People's Party in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984). Jan Blodgett, Land of Bright Promise: Advertising the Texas Panhandle and South Plains, 1870–1917 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988). Paul H. Carlson, Texas Woolybacks: The Range Sheep and Goat Industry (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). Henry C. Dethloff, A History of the American Rice Industry, 1685–1985 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988). Henry C. Dethloff and Irvin M. May, Jr., eds., Southwestern Agriculture: Pre-Columbian to Modern (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). Donald E. Green, Land of the Underground Rain: Irrigation on the Texas High Plains, 1910–1970 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973). R. Douglas Hurt, The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1981). Richard G. Lowe and Randolph B. Campbell, Planters and Plain Folk: Agriculture in Antebellum Texas (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1987). Janet M. Neugebauer, ed., Plains Farmer: The Diary of William G. DeLoach, 1914–1964 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991). William N. Stokes, Jr., Oil Mill on the Texas Plains (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1979).

  • Agriculture
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression
  • World War II
  • Texas Post World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Henry C. Dethloff and Garry L. Nall, “Agriculture,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 19, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 29, 2020