New Study Looks At Quality-of-Life In Rural Texas

The Texas Department of Agriculture says about 86 percent of the state's total land area is considered rural, and those wide open spaces are home to about 12 percent of the state's population.

With more farms and ranches than any other state, Texas leads the nation in cattle and sheep production.

But figures also show an older rural population.  The average age of a Texas rancher is 59. That's up from 57 a few years ago.

"Not many people are going into ranching and livestock production."

That's Gary Cutrer, the editor of San Angelo's Ranch and Rural Living Magazine. 

Cutrer says many ranchers these days face the temptation to sell to wealthy buyers who want to turn their property into hunting preserves or housing developments.

"They can realize millions of dollars from a large ranch. I think most of the people I know would prefer that their children or grandchildren went ahead and ranched the country, but that can't always be the case."

And as for getting help with all the roping and wrangling, it isn't always easy to find farm and ranch hands.  

Gil Engdahl is president of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association.  He says a lot of young people these days are lured away by well-paying jobs in the oilfields. 

And when ranchers can't find good help it causes problems.

"And we're talking about people who are offering good money. Room and board basically, a pickup. You know, people can't get their work done."

Engdahl is also a professor of agriculture at Angelo State University. He says even the ag students are taking jobs in the oil patch.

"They have a big huge debt of student loans.  What a better way to pay them off?"

It's against this changing landscape that researchers with Sam  Houston State University are doing their first-ever Texas Rural Survey. The study looks at quality of life issues for rural Texans. 

Cheryl Hudec is Associate Director of the Center for Rural Studies.

She says lawmakers and community leaders usually depend on secondary data when looking at rural issues, such as figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.  

But for this study researchers looked at what's happening at the local level.  They surveyed 4,100 rural households in 22 communities around the state.

"As the state becomes more and more urban and people move from rural to urban places, the rural is having less representation in the legislature. And so, we really wanted to be able to give rural a voice, or have data that can allow them to have that voice."

The results of the study will be presented to lawmakers February 13. 

Researchers say they want to start doing the study every year so they can gauge how things are changing for rural Texans. 

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