State program looks to conserve ranch, farm land
Measure seen as vital in protecting agricultural lands.
The Brazos River is wide and muddy as it passes through the Griffith family ranch.
Floodwaters frequently prompt family members, with an armada of cowboys for hire, to round up their cows and move them to higher ground. Historic flooding on the Brazos last summer made much of the ranch accessible only by boat for weeks.
“You’d have to be crazy to want to put a subdivision here because of the flooding we get,” Wilson Griffith said. “About all the land is good for is ranching and maybe growing a few pecan trees.”
Griffith and his brother, Jamie, have never wanted to sell the land, which their family has owned for more than 100 years. They want to give it to their children someday but worry about the tax implications.
However, thanks to a state program designed to assist landowners who want to conserve working farm and ranch lands, the Griffiths will be able to keep the property in the family in perpetuity, in exchange for promising not to sell it to developers. Keeping the ranch “as is” helps protect surrounding natural resources, such as wetlands that act like a magnet for migratory birds and soak up floodwaters.
The Texas Farms and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, created by the Legislature in 2005, was meant to play a vital role in protecting agricultural lands, which are disappearing as a result of the recent population boom. A 2014 Texas A&M study found that the state was losing farm and ranch land at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country.
The program provides state funds to nonprofits — often land trusts — to purchase conservation easements. Landowners who sell or donate those easements retain title to their land if they agree not to mine or build a residential subdivision or commercial development on the property.
In most cases, that legal agreement leads to a win-win situation: Working farms and ranches stay intact, and natural resources are protected.
“In Texas, the focus has really been on protecting water resources,” said Blair Calvert Fitzsimmons, chief executive officer of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. “When the state is looking at spending $63 billion on a plan that includes pumps and pipelines and desalination plants, you need a strategy to protect the land where the rain falls.”
Despite initial enthusiasm for the program, state lawmakers did not fund it until recently, and they initially put it in the hands of the General Land Office. but Cardenas and her staff will occasionally take the students out to eat. Workers also get a chance to split any tips that come in at certain events.
“They get excited about that,” Cardenas said. “They don’t get paid because it’s like an internship, per se, but that’s why we do the tips.”
Most of the Scots Café workers have graduated from Highland Park High and are 18 to 22 years old, with disabilities such as autism and Down syndrome. Students usually remain in the program two to three years, but they can leave sooner if they or their parents believe they are ready, Cardenas said.
“We want to make sure they have life skills before they leave the school system,” Cardenas said.
The café’s signature menu items include baked potatoes and pulled pork prepared with “secret seasoning” ingredients. Recently, spaghetti and meatballs were added to the menu. The recipe for that was developed by Chris Wheeler, 20, a Scots Café student.
“It’s a very good recipe,” Wheeler said.
Cardenas said they chose potatoes as their primary dish because the preparation process includes several simple steps that allow all of the workers to get involved.
“I like washing the potatoes,” said Kathleen Gamso, 20, who has an intellectual disability. “It gives us something to do.”
Scots Café was added to the school district’s transition program four years ago when Cardenas and Robin Gentry were both hired by the district.
The café’s crew has grown from five students in its first year to 12 now.
Carl Thompson, who worked with the transition program before Cardenas and Gentry arrived, credits the two for the café’s growth.
“It changed a lot when Yvette and Robin came over,” Thompson said. “We needed someone to give us a boost and to show us how a transition class can work.”
Cardenas said the students have been involved in the café’s branding and marketing, including coming up with its name and menu items. Those who don’t participate in the cooking help by labeling the food with stickers that have the café’s logo.
“We try to involve all of our students,” Cardenas said. “They also label everything, so everyone can partake to their ability.”
The group has catered almost 20 events since school started in August, including the recent North Texas Irish Festival at Dallas’ Fair Park.
Thompson and Gentry said the food is usually cooked the day of an event in the classroom’s stove. Thompson said the café recently received a new, donated stove that has helped speed up the cooking process.
“It takes about an hour and a half to cook the potatoes,” Thompson said. “It used to take two to three hours before we had this stove.”
The program also teaches the students to prepare food for themselves. The classroom is equipped with two refrigerators, one for catering and another for groceries the students use to make their daily lunches. The students take turns shopping for the items they need for their catering events and their lunches.
The students also learn how to clean their dishes and use a washer and dryer for their clothes.
Cardenas said the program aims to help students get out into the community and eventually use the skills they developed at the café to find paying jobs or internships. The district’s transition program caters to students’ individual needs, so they stop by the classroom and pick up café shifts whenever they are not working or interning at other jobs.
She said that though most of her students might not ever be able to have a fulltime job, she encourages them to look for part-time positions and to spend the rest of their time volunteering.
“They don’t have to have a paid job,” Cardenas said. “It’s all about giving back to the community one way or another.”
Thompson said seeing the students leave the program with a new set of skills is one of the best parts of his job, but that can be bittersweet.
“They just seem to blossom all of a sudden, and then they leave us,” he said. “It makes you cry, too.”
Scots Café student Luke Andrews (left) and Kerry Fergason prepare a stuffed baked potato earlier this month at the North Texas Irish Festival at Fair Park in Dallas. Scots Café chose potatoes as its primary dish because preparing them requires several simple steps that allow all participants to get involved.