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Texas Farm Family Uses Conservation and Diversification to Make a Difference

Thinking outside of the box has never been a problem for Texas farmer Dan Tucker and his family, who own and operate Yellow Prairie Farms near Caldwell. When Tucker and his wife Pam started working with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) more than six years ago, it became a learning adventure in working together to help them achieve their goals of a diversified operation, while ensuring they were taking care of their land and natural resources the best way possible.

Tucker says he was “bit by the farming bug” as a child growing up working on his foster parent’s farm. His love for farming continued into adulthood working with his family to develop a large backyard garden. Through blood, sweat and tears, a lot hard work, creative thinking, plus working with NRCS and the Burleson County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) staff, who assisted the Tuckers with their conservation efforts, it has grown into a large diversified farm operation.

The Tuckers grow a wide variety of specialty crops including heirloom melons, pumpkins, cucumbers and tomatoes; specialty okra, green beans, cantaloupes, squash, carrots, all the cold crops (like kale, cabbage, collards, etc.), purple hull and black-eyed peas, chickens, and eggs, which are utilized by the family, sold at farmer’s markets and to the Farm Patch market in Bryan. The farm also has a waiting list for fresh raw honey.

Conservation Makes a Difference

Tucker’s passion for farming and conservation can be heard as he talks about the family’s efforts to expand the products they grow more efficiently and effectively. He is the first to share how he enjoys working with his local NRCS and SWCD staff and how they walk across the land with him to discuss his ideas, land conservation needs, while making recommendations that are included in the ever-evolving conservation plan.  

“Since there is such a small profit margin on our production, we are continuously learning through our own efforts on the farm, by working with NRCS staff, and from others about ways to improve our operation and make it more efficient and cost effective,” said Tucker. “We are using cover crops that we crimp and roll to terminate, then we walk back and forth across the cover crop residue as we work. This breaks down the residue and we plant directly into this organic matter. This improves the soil health, and in turn increases crop production.”

Tucker says he and his family, and their workers are sensitive to the pollinators and beneficial insects on the farm and work to minimize any harm or damage to these beneficials, by using organic or natural soaps and sprays, and not spraying during the day when the helpful bugs are out in force. They have learned the beneficial insects help balance the scenario against the bad pests. The Tuckers have added pollinator habitat using cover crops to help improve their crop pollination and production.

The Tucker’s innovative thinking also has led to their farm having one of the largest systems of seasonal high tunnels in Texas, developed as part of their NRCS conservation plan. The seasonal high tunnels provide environmental benefits as well as help increase production value per acre.  

“Used properly, the seasonal high tunnels are the best environmental decision we have ever made,” said Tucker. “They help us reduce water usage and fertilizer consumption by 90 percent on the farm, which reduces any runoff into Davidson Creek watershed.” 

Tucker added it would be easier to grow in the field, because the seasonal high tunnels can be labor intensive. He feels the numerous benefits of the seasonal high tunnels far outweigh the time and effort it takes to manipulate the plastic coverings on and off the high tunnels because the plastic helps reduce the loss from pests, weather extremes, and diseases. Other benefits he citied include reducing fertilizer and other inputs for crop and pest management, better crop and soil health, produce tastes better and has a higher nutrition value, erosion is reduced, yields are increased and the ability to control water usage. Gutter drains were installed on each side of the tunnels which allows the rain and dew off the plastic to be collected which then gravity flows into a rain catchment system.

“NRCS technical and financial assistance has allowed me to be able to install these conservation practices and high tunnels as well as improve my operation and conservation efforts faster than I would have been able to do it by myself,” said Tucker. “Recommendation from Veronica at NRCS lead me to use Tropical Sunhemp as a cover crop that fixes nitrogen at an estimated 400 pounds per acre that dramatically improved soil health and crop production.” 

NRCS specialists provided conservation technical assistance (CTA) and financial assistance through the Environmental Qualities Incentive Program (EQIP) on an irrigation pipeline for the high tunnel system and for installing a towable center pivot for the field crops. This system allows the Tuckers to easily water their crops with gravity flow from the water storage tanks.

“Dan keeps us on our toes with his ideas,” said Veronica O’Donnell, NRCS district conservationist in Burleson County. “He also helps us to learn new concepts and gets us thinking outside the box.” 

Giving Back to the Community

Tucker grew pumpkins and gourds last Fall on 12 acres and he credits a diversified crop mix and soil health practices for the large yield of more than 312,000 pounds. Some of the pumpkins and gourds were donated in October to the Harrie P. Woodson Memorial Library in Caldwell. October was a perfect time for Tucker to make the donation since the library used the gourds and pumpkins during a story time program to teach children and parents where their food comes from.  Each child had the opportunity to take home a pumpkin for Halloween.

“The family has worked with the Burleson County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) for several years to order their cover crop seed,” said Tom Mayes, Burleson County Soil and Water Conservation District. “A small percentage of the ordered seed goes back into local county funds to benefit future projects within the county. Tucker has gone through the SWCD to order his cover crop seed over the last several years to ensure SWCD can receive this benefit.”

“I’m passionate about what I do, and I want to share that passion with others,” Tucker said. “If someone is passionate about farming, willing to learn and work hard to accomplish their goals, I am willing to take the time to teach them how to farm and how to be successful.” 

Planning for the Future

The Tuckers are planting more than 25 varieties of fruit trees for a “pick your own” orchard that will be ready for limited picking in two years and full commercial operation in three years.

“Besides providing healthy varieties of berries, fruits and specialty items, we want to get people out to the farm year-round, so they have a fun educational time while they are picking their own food. Then they can see and learn how Goji berries and Kiwis can be grown in Texas, plus have the interactive experience of how all these fresh grown items look, feel and taste,” he said.

Tucker and his daughter Miranda are also working on plans for a unique farm to table restaurant that would be educational as well as nutritional, using produce from the family’s farm. This would also tie into the educational programs being planned for the farm such as workshops, events and other activities to show people how their food is grown, harvested and can be prepared for all ages to enjoy.

For more information on opportunities working with USDA, visit www.farmers.gov.

Texas Farm Family Uses Conservation and Diversification to Make a Difference, Melissa Blair, USDA-NRCS public affairs specialist (2019, March)