The Southeast Texas Rice Silo

8 May 2009, 17:54

“The Great Plains of America are vast and secret are its villages turned inward…as if time had stood still. These people were not seeking America, but escaping from Europe, and in these first wooden silos there is a memory of and obsession with architecture from different parts of central Europe. Over time the silos rose with ever greater assurance and created the landscape of the New World. In abandoning the problem of form they rediscovered architecture.”
— Aldo Rossi, Italian architect

Whether you travel on the major highways or the less bustling county roads throughout Texas, you see them. They rise out of the earth dwarfing the surrounding landscape. They are the economic center of the towns that cluster at their base. Through the camera lens, these concrete and steel titans are iconic American structures. They are ingrained in our collective consciousness and are magnificent testaments to community and industry. They invoke images that are both inspiring and haunting. The American grain silo is an artifact of functional purism and their form shaped and inspired the era of modern architecture.

In southeast Texas the rice silo is to us what the grain silo is to the Midwest. However, in southeast Texas a deeper understanding of the current state of these structures and the socio-political context of the industry that created these icons is required, and without it any attempt to capture their true essence with a photograph would be naïve.




Rice farming in Texas has historically been a large-scale, capital-intensive enterprise, heavily dependent upon the international markets and commodity indices. due to fluctuation in the market, as well as weather conditions and the type of rice planted for the growing year, output is always variable. That said, looking at the output over several decades, it is clear to see that the rice farming industry in Texas has been in steady decline for sometime. For example looking at the past 30 years of information available, the amount of land used in Texas for rice cultivation in 1978, amounted to 558,000 acres in production and produced 4,700 pounds per acre. By 1995 however the land used for rice cultivation was 318,000 thousand acres which produced 5,600 pounds per acre, just under a 45% reduction over that 17 period.

This decrease in farm producing acreage in southeast Texas has been directly caused by the suburbanization of Fort Bend, Harris, Brazoria, Chambers and Jefferson Counties. At already marginal profits for cultivating these lands, growing population centers and escalating property taxes combined with moderately low fuel costs continue to make these lands attractive to master-planned communities and unaffordable for rice farmers. As the region suitable for the cultivation of rice is fixed in size, growing suburban developments in the region means a reduction in land available for rice cultivation.

Another contributing factor has been public policy by the US federal government in regards to the agriculture industry in general. When the US Congress passed the FAIR Act of 1996, the legislation decoupled farm program payments to meet World Trade Organization commitments, which allowed the federal government to give cash subsidies to the owners of farm land, instead of the tenants that leased and farmed the land. Since the federal government did not require the payment to be tied to the production of a crop, growing a crop did not have to occur in order to receive the payment. The landowners were thus given the option to idle the land and receive the full subsidy, or keep the land in production and receive the payment through money paid in rent by the farmer to whom the land was leased. As payment in the form of subsidies outpaced the land rent in the region, more landowners opted to idle the farm and take the federal subsidy.

The Rice Farmers Cooperative of El Campo, Texas has stated that the result of this federal program in Texas has been that “non-traditional land purchasers are buying land for recreational purposes — recreational cattle growers and hunting. They can take the land out of production and take the payments — which will pay for the majority of their land payment.” One rice farmer from Beaumont, Texas recounted that he had “lost the leases on 2,600 acres of farmland. None of the land lost is leased to another farmer. Instead, the landowner realized that the fixed payments provided by the farm bill exceeded the land rent he received” from the previous lease. The subsidy program was extended in 2002 and continues still. This program is one of the major components for the reduction of rice cultivation in our region. Just after the policy was introduced production in 1998 amounted to 283,000 acres in production producing and 5,600 pounds per acre. By 2008 the land used for cultivation had dropped to 172,000 acres in production and 6,900 pounds per acre, a 40% drop from the crop levels just 10 years prior.

**Note: All figures use “harvested acres” for calculations, not “planted acres.”




As a result of the reduction of lands available for rice production either through public policy or accepted land use, the output in southeast Texas has been in a steady decline, bordering on free-fall.

As the yearly production of rice drops, so does the need for preparation and storage. Essentially the Texas rice silo is being abandoned by the industry that created them.

“Then suddenly a silo with administrative buildings, closed horizontal fronts against the stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light, everything else now seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams. Everything else was only a beginning.”
— Erich Mendelsohn, German architect

Rice production continues in southeast Texas and rice silo operations continue as well, but the ever-increasing scene of the abandoned, deteriorating rice silo has become a metaphor for the rice growing industry in Texas, as well as the many rural towns and economies that support them. As rice farms continue to be reduced in number and production yields decrease, the vacant Texas rice silo will begin to be seen less as the cathedrals of the plain and more as decaying memorials to their own existence.

…and now you have context to frame with that picture of your rice silo.



References:

AgEcon Search – The University of Minnesota Department of Applied Economics

The Agriculture and Food Policy Center at Texas A&M

The Delta Farm Press

US Department of Agriculture: National Agriculture Statistics Service

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