The Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve is located near the midpoint of the Texas coast. Named to honor the spirit and generosity of one of Texas’ most ardent conservationists, the 7,000-acre preserve is part of a vast coastal wetlands system and provides habitat for hundreds of species of migratory birds. Derril Franzen, his wife, Samantha, and older brother, G.W., are partners in Franzen Farms. His younger brother, Wesley, has his own area farming operation, as well. For more than twenty years, the Franzen family has leased land on the preserve to grow rice, which creates feeding and roosting opportunities for native and migratory birds. The arrangement has benefited their family, the Conservancy and the human and wildlife communities of the Texas coast.
“My family moved to the Collegeport area in the early 1900s and we’ve been farming and ranching here more or less since then. We’ve continued on with the family tradition, I suppose. My brother, G.W., and I began farming rice on Mr. Runnells’ property in 1982 when we were still in college and we started grazing cattle a few years after. We farmed with him for numerous years and we never needed a contract—it was just a handshake between us.
“It’s good rice land here. We farm three 400-acre parcels in a three-year rotation. We’ll plant and harvest the rice, then flood the fields for the migratory birds. Then we drain them the following year and put them into the cattle grazing rotation. Before we plant rice on a parcel, we go in and till it with a 30-foot disk. It helps the grasses grow and creates good forage for the cattle. When the grass seeds out, it creates another food source for the birds. Everything works in unison.
“When The Nature Conservancy got part of the property, we were a little skeptical. We didn’t know much about the organization, but we soon found out they’re good to work with. We realized the Conservancy’s mission is to make things work together for the good of the land. I think everybody realizes that if a place is not managed then it’s just not productive for anything—even the wildlife. Some of the adjacent landowners and the surrounding neighbors are doing the same kinds of habitat management. We even do habitat restoration projects on our personal land. Revenue from duck hunting and bird watching is extremely important to the economy here.
“We see the preserve manager on almost a daily basis. We visit with him and anytime he has a question or problem, he comes to us and we do the same. We stay in close contact with him when we’re in the field or on the preserve itself and work with him to establish the grazing rotation. And the Conservancy’s prescribed burning program helps the cattle and the range conditions, which is great for us.
“We’ve never regretted staying here. We had opportunity to move when Mr. Runnells donated this property and we’re really glad we stayed. We’re learning new things every year. I mean, a farmer and rancher has to stay abreast of a lot of changes just to stay in business.”