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Texas Tropical Trail Region

Participant in the Texas Historical Commission's
Texas Heritage Trails Program

Agriculture


LBJ State Park & Historic Site, Uvalde
LBJ State Park & Historic Site, Uvalde

DOWN ON THE FARM

How many times a week do you think you could eat beans, corn, and squash? Once? Twice? How about every day, several times a day. Sounds like a foodie's worst nightmare. But if you lived in Texas before the advent of European settlement, these staples, along with whatever meat you could capture, would be part of your routine meal plan. Crop diversity and the introduction of livestock to our food supply, courtesy of the rest of the world, helped make an industry in Texas out of growing things to eat. Prior to the Civil War, a typical farm in Texas consisted of an average 150-acres where livestock, crops, and garden foods were raised, usually by non-slaveholding families. Over the course of the last century, industry and commerce replaced the family farm with large commercial farms and an agricultural monoculture dominated by cotton, sorghum, and other mass-produced crops. Economic forces transformed "living off the land" from a necessity to a novelty in a little over 100 years. Oddly, a back-to-the-land movement is on the rise, capturing advocates-and restaurateurs-who believe that composing an entire meal from locally available products might not be such a bad idea. Beans and cornbread anyone?

OLIVE OASIS

What do you get when you combine a slice of central South Texas with a warm climate and irrigation? Ideal conditions for growing vegetables year round. The region composed of Dimmit, Zavala, Frio, and La Salle counties represents such a place known as the "winter garden" of the state, an area rich in artesian waters, suitable soils, and few harsh winter freezes that might compromise crop production. Historically, the region consisted of grasses and mesquite partial to the warm, arid conditions. But once irrigation was introduced (and a lot of plow work accomplished) and the rail lines were in place, Texas began producing commercial crops like onions, spinach, beets, and strawberries with cotton, citrus, and nuts mixed in. At one time, the region supplied a significant winter vegetable crop to Texas and the rest of the country, but as water tables dropped so did production. However, the region continues to innovate today with new potential commercial crops such as olives, ideally suited to a more conservative approach to farming in the drier conditions of this modern age. With over 50 million gallons of olive oil consumed by Americans every year, winter garden farming Texans may be on to something.

EAT YOUR VEGETABLES YEAR-ROUND!

Mention a winter garden in Dimmit, Zavala, Frio, or La Salle counties and you'll likely inspire talks of commercial crop projections for peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and onions instead of your grandma's cabbage patch. This historic agricultural quadruplex is known as the Winter Garden Region and, thanks to irrigation and a relatively mild climate, boasts a year-round production of vegetables. Once an arid land composed of mesquite and short grass plains, the region experienced transformation through the employment of artesian wells and dams, turning dry-land ranching into fertile crop production. The arrival of the railroad made getting that produce to market possible and profitable. Onions featured in the first commercial venture, a production that began in 1898, kickstarting a thriving vegetable growing industry. Today, festivals celebrate the garden heritage such as the Onion Fest in Weslaco and you might find freshly pressed olive oil from the many promising orchards now established in the region at county fairs and farmer's markets. You can still drive the roads of the Tropical Trail and witness the sprinklers, canals, plows, and farmers hard at work in the fields of the state's year-round garden, drive slowly and reward yourself with a stop at the local produce stand!

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Read more about agriculture in the Handbook of Texas Online.