Courtesy Historic Katy by Carol
Katy’s land was once covered by acres of rice
Before Katy was connected by rail to Houston—and long before the suburbs came to Katy’s doorstep—the land was deemed fit only for grazing cattle. An early land agent for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad named Adam Stockdick persuaded settlers to try their hand at farming a variety of crops and fruit trees in the prairie. Few imagined that rice would come to be the foundation and bounty of the growing town of Katy.
In Historic Katy, historian Carol Adams details the first attempts at area rice cultivation. In 1901, despite being limited to a primitive pump and hand-held tools, German immigrant William Eule dug Katy’s first well and grew its first rice crop. Eule’s success helped persuade even Stockdick to engage in the hard but fruitful work.
Reliance on a consistent and level water supply posed challenges for farmers. Drought, hurricanes, insects, birds, reptiles and a volatile market for rice could cost farmers their entire crops and livelihoods.
After the price of rice briefly soared during World War I, the resultant demand for labor—to plow and plant, build the small levees required to maintain the water level in the fields, and to cut, bundle and thresh the rice—drew new families to the area.
“‘Grampa’ [and his brother] came to the Katy area from the tiny town of Iowa, La. in 1924 to farm the virgin land for a gentleman landowner,” said Christianna Woods, who helps manage the Woods rice farm in Katy. “Over time, they were able to acquire their own farms which continually increased in size until they were handed over to their children.”
In the early 1940s, the first of Katy’s distinctive driers was built to protect the crop from predation and spoiling in the wet climate. As prices climbed in the post-World War II era, Katy rice became vital to the regional economy.
Improvements to tractors, trucks, combines, fertilizers, machinery, wells and types of rice have brought many changes to the industry. In the early 20th century, an acre of land might produce about eight barrels of milled rice from an operation requiring the work of dozens of field hands. Woods said that the same acre in 2012 might produce 80 to 100 barrels, with fewer personnel involved.
“Technology has changed every aspect of farming, and the 21st century is as strong in agriculture as any industry,” said state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, a third-generation Katy rice farmer. “All of this technology is at a significant cost, yet [it is] a definite game changer for agriculture.”
Today there are new challenges for those who grow, store, mill, distribute or sell Katy-area rice. The total acreage in Katy devoted to rice has decreased from a high of more than 60,000 acres in the 1970s to around 6,000, and the town’s rice driers are dormant.
“There has been a significant [loss of] farmed acres and a loss of numerous agriculture-related businesses, and probably the largest impact has been the decrease in water fowl habitat on the Katy prairie,” Hegar said. “Area farmers face a continued influx of suburban growth.”
For both the Hegar and Woods families, rice farming continues to be a proud but challenging tradition.
“On the whole we have risen to the challenge to stay smart and competitive in the market and to constantly look for new ways to improve the process,” Woods said.