State pro­gram looks to con­serve ranch, farm land

Mea­sure seen as vi­tal in pro­tect­ing agri­cul­tural lands.

Austin American-Statesman - - COMMUNITY NEWS - By Kim McGuire Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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.”

BRAN­DON WADE / DAL­LAS MORN­ING NEWS

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.

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