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The Wright Place at the Right Time

story by Dee Ann Littlefield

It was a modern-day barn raising. When word got around that Falls County ranchers Billy and Marilynn Wright were going to be putting up a seasonal high tunnel as a demonstration site on their property, friends, neighbors and even strangers showed up to help assemble it.

Billy and Marilynn Wright at their farm in Marlin, Texas hosted the work day.
Over 100 producers attended the workshop with information on USDA programs.
As the frame is completed, volunteer workers put up the protective plastic around the structure.
Workshop host Victor Harris of visits with the workshop attendees about high tunnel construction.

People came from near and far to their property in Marlin, Texas to learn about the benefits of the structure, as well as how to construct one of these high tunnels, which is similar to a greenhouse. The searing mid-July heat did not deter them. They ran tape measures, carried lumber, dug post holes, drove stakes, and so much more in an effort to construct the seasonal high tunnel on the Wright’s property. 

As they worked they would take occasional breaks under the shade of a nearby tent. While on break they would talk about their own farming and ranching operations, asking questions and sharing ideas with each other. Conversation topics ranged from what they were going to do with their fall calves and what kind of bull they should put on their cow herd to what crop they were going to plant next and what kind of vegetables the Wrights were going to grow in their new seasonal high tunnel. 

The event was the second day of a two-day Minority Landowner Workshop hosted by USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Minority Landowner magazine. 

“This is great, just great,” beamed Wright. “It’s just so wonderful to get so many people together to visit and share ideas, as well as learn from agency and industry folks. It’s really an honor to have them all out to our place.”

Over 100 producers from as far away as Dallas, Abilene, Houston and Kenedy attended the first day of the workshop filled with informative presentations from NRCS, Farm Service Agency (FSA), Rural Development (RD), AgriLife Extension, Puckett Greenhouses, and Baylor Law School. 

Many of the producers that attended the workshop hadn’t ever worked with USDA agencies but were there thanks to extensive outreach efforts from local NRCS personnel and the Texas Small Farmers and Ranchers Community Based Organization. Longtime Falls County NRCS District Conservationist Brian Bailey and Milam County NRCS District Conservationist Todnechia Mitchell, a lifelong Marlin resident, were key in getting the information out about the workshop. The Texas Small Farmers and Ranchers CBO, led by rancher Wade Ross, also spread the word through their far-reaching network of minority producers.

“It doesn’t matter what color we are, we all have one thing in common: we all eat,” said Ross. “And regardless of race, all of us are farmers and our job is to feed America. We all want to learn all we can about the best way to do that.”

Featured speakers included Al Leal, NRCS assistant state conservationist for field operations, and Judith Canales, FSA State Director and Billy Curb, RD State Rural Energy Coordinator. Topics included NRCS Technical Assistance and Conservation Planning, NRCS and FSA Financial Assistance from 2014 Farm Bill, FSA Programs, 2014 Farm Bill Changes for Commodity Programs, Succession Planning for Heirs, Conservation Easement Programs, Economics of Agriculture Production and Marketing, Production Diversification with Seasonal High Tunnels, and Seasonal High Tunnel Construction. 

“It is really good to see so many producers so active and engaged, wanting to learn all they can about USDA financial programs and conservation practices that help them diversify their operation and be more sustainable,” said Leal. “It is a great opportunity to learn the value of high tunnels, which include extending the growing season which can create an opportunity for increased farm profits.” 

For several years North Carolina based Minority Landowner magazine publisher Victor Harris, a former North Carolina Forest Service employee, has been conducting similar workshops in other states as a way to bring minority producers together to share information and create awareness of various USDA programs and technical assistance available. In 2015 he formed an agreement with NRCS Texas to co-host five Minority Landowner workshops with NRCS. As a result of that agreement, nearly 200 producers attended the workshops that were held in Tyler, Somerset, El Paso, Lubbock and Marlin.