To make ends meet, more Texas farmers lease land to hunters

John Schott, a wheat farmer from Briscoe County in the Texas Panhandle, says the income on his wheat crop the last few years ``hasn't been enough to keep shoes on the children's feet.'' The money Mr. Schott makes leasing hunting privileges to his land has been ``critical,'' he says, in helping him keep the land he farms. Increasingly, Texas farmers are looking at alternative ways of boosting their income. In the face of low prices for traditional crops, they are trying out new crops -- pinto beans, blueberries, kiwi fruit, even Christmas trees, canaries, and redfish -- that have a growing market and the potential for higher return. More cattle ranchers, facing a lusterless beef market, are also exploring different ways to put their land to work -- in some cases, so that they might keep it.

A growing number of Texas farmers, like Schott, who in good times let friends and neighbors hunt on their land for free, are now cashing in on the state's $1 billion hunting industry.

``This year, I'm not even letting my kids go in and hunt [for free],'' Schott says. He plans to charge $1,000 for each of the 12 deer hunters who will take their rifles to the land he has along Caprock Canyons.

Recently the Texas Department of Agriculture and the Department of Parks and Wildlife set up a matchmaking service to help bring hunters together with farmers who have land to lease. Already some 3.5 million acres have been registered with the program.

``We're not saying this will tide over those farmers that are in real trouble,'' says Heather Ball, an economist with the state agriculture department, who says that 150 farmers are leaving Texas land each week. She says one 1982 study estimated farm income from hunting leases at $108 million, or less than 1 percent of Texas cash receipts for agriculture.

``But in some areas they'll take in five-to-10 thousand dollars for pheasant hunting on a family farm,'' she says. ``That might cover the [farm's] interest payment, and these days if you can cover that, you're doing pretty well.''

According to Ms. Ball, helping hunters find land to hunt on is important not only to farmers, but to the broader rural economy as well. In John Schott's Briscoe County, for example, a new brochure listing land available for hunting also includes a list of informal ``bed and breakfasts'' -- homes around the hunting areas where hunters can find two home-cooked meals a day, plus a bed and a hot shower.

With demand for land to hunt on growing steadily, agriculture specialists say they expect to see more land opened up to hunters. Wallace Klussman, a professor of wildlife and fisheries sciences at Texas A&M University, says farmers and ranchers will find leasing increasingly attractive not only because it is an additional source of income, but also because it does not require spending any money for land improvements.

He adds, however, that there are often some tradeoffs. ``It costs to keep game and fish on a farm or ranch,'' says Dr. Klussman. ``It's not a free resource.'' Some species are stocked, and some must be fed. In the case of exotic game, high fences have to be built to keep them separated from indigenous game populations.

Today about 1,000 Texas ranches stock exotic game -- mostly African and Asian species of deer and sheep, and principally for trophy hunting. But a small number of ranches are raising exotic game to sell the meat, and some Texans see this as another promising source of agriculture income.

``We've just about doubled our business every year since we started,'' says Mike Hughes, a Kerrville, Texas, rancher who four years ago began selling the meat of exotic game raised on Central Texas ranches to gourmet restaurants around the country. Mr. Hughes, who ``harvests'' game from 60 ranches, has started a consulting business for people interested in raising exotic game for meat.

Exotic game has been stocked on Texas lands since at least the 1950s, but primarily to diversify and broaden the hunting season.

Hughes says the return per acre on raising exotic deer for meat is about three times more profitable than raising cattle. Yet he cautions that in central Texas, where the high recreational value placed on land has raised land prices, ``You still can't go out and buy ranchland and make money off of it. But at least with exotics, you'll lose less.''

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