Crops to cul-de-sacs

As pastoral land disappears in Central Texas, one man holds back the tide

Ron Collins, 69, opens a gate as he carries buckets of tools on his family farm located off Dee Gabriel Collins Road just outside Austin.

Crops to cul-de-sacs

Ron Collins, 69, opens a gate as he carries buckets of tools on his family farm located off Dee Gabriel Collins Road just outside Austin.

As pastoral land disappears in Central Texas, one man holds back the tide

Story by Asher Price
Visuals by Bronte Wittpenn
Published on Marh 27, 2020

From the cab of his pickup, Ron Collins gives a tour of a bygone era, when his Pilot Knob neighborhood in southeastern Travis County was a country outpost, home to his extended family, which traces its roots there back more than a century.

Here is where his old two-room, all-black elementary school sat — his teacher used to drive him home with a loaf of bread on the dash to warm it up enough that butter would melt right on it.

There is where a cane-wielding neighbor shepherded turkeys on land that is now McKinney Falls State Park.

Here are the creeks and hills where he and his siblings hunted rabbits — and watched greyhounds set off after them.

Here’s the old dairy and the neighborhood grocer — both now replaced by a subdivision — and there’s the hideaway cemetery with the creaky wrought-iron fence that Collins’ forebears occupy.

There are lots of cousins, aunts and grandparents in these stories.

Once upon a time, at least 500 acres in these parts belonged to the Collins family, assembled by his great-great-grandfather Newton Collins, a former slave who parlayed money gained from a carpentry trade into a series of land purchases in the late 19th century. But today, Ron Collins’ 29 acres of pastureland, the same property on which he and his 10 siblings were raised and helped grow cotton and corn, still home to a small collection of cattle, goats, pigs and horses, is now half-circled by subdivisions and apartment complexes.

A fast-growing population

Population has skyrockted in Central Texas over the last 20 years — and is projected to keep growing. Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Texas Demographic Center

The agricultural lands of Central Texas are disappearing, subsumed by a sprawling suburbia as farmers and ranchers find it easier to sell than scratch out a living working the land.

As part of a series to mark 2020 — a year whose very number conjures retrospective vision and far-reaching insight — the American-Statesman is looking backward and forward, to 2000 and to 2040, on a series of themes, including land use.

Even as the story of the Collins’ land is in many ways singular — the story of African Americans and land tends at least as much toward dispossession as inheritance — it is emblematic of the wider dissolution of farmland in Central Texas.

From 1997 to 2017, Texas’ population increased from 19.4 million to 28.3 million. Eighty-six percent of that increase occurred within the state’s 25 highest-growth counties.

As land values rise, a loss of working lands

Farm and ranch land in Central Texas is getting paved over as market values rise. Travis County, for example, saw the loss of more than 125,000 acres of such working land as its market value spiked by more than 480 percent between 1997 and 2017. Source: Texas Land Trends/Texas A&M University

As more people flock to big cities, real estate values of working lands — generally farm and ranch land — have shot up, especially in Central Texas.

The average appraised market value of Texas’ farms and ranches was $1,901 an acre in 2017, a nearly 300% increase over two decades.

In Travis County, the appraised market value for farm and ranch land has increased nearly 500% over those two decades.

During that period, farm and ranch land in Travis County dropped by 125,000 acres, or nearly in half. In Hays County, lands in agricultural use dropped by 115,000 acres and in Williamson County, by 80,000 acres, according to a 2019 Texas A&M University report on state land trends.

“You can see the pressure to sell in this area is great,” Collins, 69, said. “If you’re not tied into the land and you have a different plan, it’s easy to take the money.

“You’re never going to be able to be this close to town again and have what we have right here,” he said, “because they’re just paving over everything.”

Bulldozers level ground for a multifamily development off McKinney Falls Parkway in Austin. The development shares a fence line with Ron Collins' farm. Easton Park also sits adjacent to Collins' land. The massive subdivision will eventually have as many as 10,000 houses and apartments.

Rural to urban

Texas’ rural land is “under increasing land conversion pressure driven by rapid population growth, suburbanization, and rural development,“ the Texas A&M researchers wrote.

Austin’s future is now

Take a look back. Take a look forward. Or just take a look around and see how the Austin area is growing.

Even for an area accustomed to doubling in size every two decades, the past 20 years have brought tremendous change and challenge.

Throughout this year, the American-Statesman is looking back at how we got here and looking ahead to what's next. We call it 2020 Austin.

In 1900, the population of Texas was about 3 million, 85% of whom lived in rural areas. By the end of World War II, the Texas population had doubled to about 6 million, evenly split between urban and rural dwellers. By 2018, only 11% of Texans lived in rural areas.

One telltale sign of urban growth in Central Texas: The expanding footprint of Austin. A century ago, the city covered 16.5 square miles; 20 years ago, it was 265 square miles. Today, according to city figures, it stretches over 325 square miles.

The shift has profound effects for Central Texas. Land fragmentation — large tracts of open space converted to smaller parcels with development, often homes — means pronounced competition for water. It means more roads and fences crisscrossing the landscape. And it has left species native to the region increasingly isolated.

Time-lapse of Southeast Austin growth from 1984 to 2018

“The biggest threat to wildlife and habitat today is the break-up of large land holdings into smaller tracts,“ according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department paper. ”As intact ranches become smaller ‘ranchettes,’ wildlife populations are subject to many pressures including loss of open space from development, increased hunting pressure, proliferation of potential predators (dogs, cats and other carnivores), and introduction of exotic species to name a few.“

Nonprofit land conservancies seek to protect increasingly rare rural land abutting urban areas — property owners can opt to put conservation easements on their land, getting a big tax break in exchange for guarantees their land won’t be developed. City of Austin purchases of large tracts in Travis and Hays counties to ensure water quality in the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer also help ensure land remains undeveloped. The city and Travis County, along with nonprofits and other government agencies, have combined to purchase vast tracts of western Travis County to set aside nesting habitat for endangered songbirds. And state-supported policies such as agriculture exemptions allow Collins to get a tax break on his property.

PHOTOS: Not For Sale: Urban sprawl threatens Texas farm

But offers from real estate developers have proved hard to pass up for many farmers and ranchers whose land, once considered rural, is now on the fringes of fast-growing metropolitan areas.

“Some of that land, touching I-35, they’re pricing it by the square foot,” said Matt Wagner, retired deputy director of the wildlife division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, who studied urban and rural planning as a graduate student. Today he consults with landowners about preserving their property. “The further you get off the corridor, land is cheaper — but it’s still going $40,000 per acre. You can’t compete with that with any kind of traditional agriculture or lease hunting.”

Ron Collins, 69, walks hand-in-hand with his granddaughter Kiya, 10, through pastureland at his farm located off Dee Gabriel Collins Road in Austin on Thursday, January 1, 2020. Overtime several developments have grown near his 29 acres. The newest development includes a multifamily housing project that will hold nearly 400 people. The land used be owned by his cousin who sold it for $2 million. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Family history

Not long ago, the view from Ron Collins’ house, an old shiplap home where he and his 10 siblings were raised, was verdant pastureland.

Nowadays, it’s populated by roofs and apartments, much of it on land that once belonged to his relatives.

Collins says he won’t sell his 29 acres, despite overtures from developers.

To the south of Collins’ property, where a family friend used to run cattle — and adjacent to a pasture where Collins' horses roam — sits Easton Park, a massive subdivision that eventually will be home to as many as 10,000 houses and apartments.

To the west, on nearly 20 acres that once belonged to a cousin of Collins’, at least 312 apartments are under construction by a company called Am-Tex.

The cousin, who declined an interview request, used the nearly $2 million from the sale to buy twice as much farmland in Mustang Ridge, about 15 miles to the southeast, Collins said.

Kiya Collins, 10, stands among several miniature horses and donkeys on her grandfather's farm off Dee Gabriel Collins Road in southeastern Travis County.

Ron Collins cools off in the kitchen of the home where he grew up with his 10 siblings.

But Collins is bound by preserving his family legacy.

“I could use that money — don’t get me wrong — but actually would love to preserve some of this land that came from Newton, want to pass it on through my son to my granddaughter.

“I’m connected to the family history, and I don’t want to see the last vestiges of what our great-great-grandfather put into place disappear into blackness. I’d like there to be a legacy that keeps going.

“The name on the street” — he lives on Dee Gabriel Collins Road, named for his great-grandfather — “that sells it for me. You go somewhere else, you got to start from scratch. I don’t have a problem making friends and establishing neighbors and all that stuff, but you’re starting on the ground level and going up.”

(Collins and other family members recently turned down a roughly $2 million offer on 18 acres they co-own, he said.)

Collins, who has had stints as a teacher at Del Valle High School, an education programmer for the American Cancer Society and a health educator at Planned Parenthood, among other things, and retired as an employee of the Texas Workforce Commission, is an inveterate keeper of things in a way that shows his attachments run deep.

Among the stuff he holds dear: family memories.

“Our great-great-grandfather set us all on the right path,” he said. “Who knows where we would have been if he hadn’t done that?”

Headstones dating as far back as the 19th century can be seen in the Collins family cemetery near the family farm off Cottonmouth School Road in southeastern Travis County. Ron Collins’ great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather are buried in the cemetery.

Ron Collins chases two rams into a pen on his family farm.

Today, a new Del Valle school district elementary school, nestled in the Easton Park subdivision, is named for his great-great-grandfather.

Newton Collins built homes and churches, and he donated land for the first school in the area, which he paid to build and furnish. He hired the school's first teacher.

Collins was the great-grandfather of Austin civil rights activist Ada Collins Anderson — Ron Collins’ aunt. She was the first African American elected to the Austin Community College board, in 1982, and the first black woman to sit on a bank board in Austin. Ada Collins Anderson studied in the one-room schoolhouse Newton Collins built.

Ron Collins tells a story about his late father, Talferd Collins, a longtime Travis County constable who, with his wife, Ella, oversaw about 300 acres, a portion of which Ron Collins now owns.

“When he was still alive, he sat at that patio of the house, and a man had come out and offered him I think it was $3 million” — this would have been in the early 1980s, Collins says — “and he says, ‘Why would I do that?’ and the guys says, ‘You could do lots of things with that money.’ ‘Like what?’ ‘You could go and buy yourself a place and all that stuff.’ ‘So what you’re saying is I could sell what I love and try to go and find it again?’ ”


An excavator prepares land for a housing development that shares a fence line with Ron Collins’ 29 acres.