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Tres Venadas Ranch Honored by Family Land Heritage Program

Lessons learned on land passed down through generations

story by Melissa Blair

More than 136 years of hard work, family dedication, and pride took the Serna family from the dry dusty roads of the Tres Venadas Ranch in Duval County to the Texas State Capitol in November to be recognized at the 37th Annual Family Land Heritage (FLH) ceremony in Austin. The Texas Department of Agriculture’s (TDA) Family Land Heritage Program recognizes Texas families who have kept their farms and ranches in continuous agricultural production for 100 years or more.

Leo Serna Jr. and his dad, Leopoldo Serna, feed cattle at the Tres Venadas Ranch.Today, Leopoldo (Leo) Serna Jr., the great-great grandson of founder Refugio Serna, owns and operates the Tres Venadas Ranch with his father, Leopoldo Serna Sr., and his three daughters, Koreena, Kasey, and Kelly.

Refugio Serna was born in Mexico and arrived in Duval County in 1875 at the age of 26. Refugio and his wife, Agustina, settled on the 1,600 acres he bought in 1876. They raised 10 children. Their farm had cattle, corn, goats, grain sorghum, and sheep. Son, Ismael Serna, inherited part of the land and followed in his father’s steps, adding cotton to their production. During the 1930s, a school was built on the property where local students were educated.

Ismael’s son, Luis Serna, inherited land and added a dairy farm to the operation, which was in operation for 20 years. The property was passed to Leopoldo Serna Sr. in 1983 and in 1995 he passed the land to his son, Leo. The family raises show cattle, and hay and winter oats for grazing.

According to Leopoldo Sr., he would bring his son, Leo to the ranch and teach him about the land, animals, and what it took to own and operate a ranch. He says his son was more interested in being a baseball player, but he kept telling him he wasn’t going to be a baseball player and that the lessons he learned on the land would benefit him more. And true to what his father told him, Leo has not only used the skills he learned to continue his family’s ranch, but also to help landowners as a soil conservation technician with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Frio County. Prior to NRCS, Leo worked for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) with the Rio Grande Watermaster Program and also managed a 30,000 acre ranch south of Falfurrias.

NRCS and Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board staff discuss the Serna’s conservation plan.Leo knows through his work on the ranch and now with NRCS, the importance of conservation in the drought-stricken south Texas lands to accomplish his family’s goals for the land.

“We are working with NRCS in Duval County on technical assistance for brush control, water facilities, and rotational grazing for erosion control,” said Leo. “We have to learn to work with the land and nature to protect it, so it continues to provide for my daughters and future generations.”

Leo, like his dad did with him, brings his daughters to the ranch to work and has instilled the love of the land, which is reflected in their passion for the land and their future.

“Being a part of the ranch has taught me a business aspect as well as about agriculture ever since I was a little girl,” said Koreena, 18, who assists her dad and grandfather with managing the ranch by marketing cattle and working with the finances. “I’ve learned all the basics of handling animals and selling and breeding cattle.”

Kasey, age 17, plans to use her knowledge and skills with herd health management on the ranch to pursue an animal science degree from Texas A&M University in College Station. “I’ve always had an interest in helping animals in hope that I may become a licensed veterinarian, which is why working on the family ranch is exciting.”

Kelly, 13, enjoys hunting arrowheads on the ranch and target practicing with her rifle.

Senator Judith Zaffirini, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, Leopold Serna and Leopold Serna Jr.“It is a great honor to be able to keep the ranch in the same family and pass it onto future generations despite all the challenges and changes,” said Leopoldo Sr., who has been on the ranch all his life and has seen the many changes in agriculture and technology over the last 70 years.

For 2012, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples honored 104 farms and ranches from 67 Texas counties at the Family Land Heritage ceremony. To date, TDA has recognized more than 4,700 properties in 237 counties across Texas in the Family Land Heritage Program.