SAN MARCOS, Texas - This five-acre Hill Country farm isn't for harvesting crops, and it's not for raising animals. It's for bodies - dead bodies - and the Texas State University criminal justice students who use them to help solve cold cases.
These CSI-style cemeteries, where scientists study donated human corpses as they decompose, have been untenable in all but a few states - the result of uneasy neighbors and an obvious "ick" factor.
For now, Texas has beaten these odds. Within a year, the state will be home to two of the country's four "body farms," including TSU's, the largest human decomposition program in the world.
But the researchers know not to get too comfortable.
TSU's "Forensic Anthropology Research Facility" was forced to switch sites twice over five years because of public objections, and then had to delay its research because construction workers were too frightened to work near dead bodies.
Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, which is in the same university system as Texas State, got approval this year for its own body farm - the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility. But some students and faculty have raised concerns about the farm's location - on a former Texas Parks and Wildlife fish hatchery they say was supposed to be reserved for "natural" sciences. "Natural," in this case, is in the eye of the beholder.
"I personally don't see why we need more than one in this state, and more than one in the same university system," said Sam Houston biology professor James Deshaw, who has been at the university since 1970. "And I definitely don't think the general public is aware."
On a recent rainy afternoon, Dr. Jerry Melbye stood at the lip of a shallow red mud grave, the future home of one of several human cadavers donated to the TSU body farm. Beside him, the first green weeds were springing up in the dirt covering the only corpse laid to rest here - a man who will be exhumed next year for research.
Dr. Melbye said the purpose of this and other body farms is to solve crimes by determining how bodies decompose - when they're left in the sunlight, in the shade, partially buried, under water, or even in the trunk of a car.
Leaving bodies out in different seasons and in different temperatures is essential, he said. So is conducting the research in various geographic regions, say supporters of opening two body farms in Texas - regions with different soil, plants, bugs and animal predators.
Until now, TSU has done its decomposition research on other large mammals. Through a chain-link fence on a separate plot of land, several dead pigs can be seen - and smelled - decomposing on a variety of different turfs: grass, wood, gravel, dirt. Scientists have even tested the decomposition of pigs in chlorinated water, research they can extrapolate to human bodies found in swimming pools.
"We need to do this for people who don't have a voice," said Dr. Joan Bytheway, who conceived of Sam Houston's body farm in 2005 while excavating mass graves in Iraq to convict Saddam Hussein of genocide. "So many cold cases are never solved. We can use this to determine what happens to bodies postmortem, until they're recovered."
Having even a single human on TSU's body farm is an accomplishment years in the making for Dr. Melbye, the director of the university's Forensic Anthropology Center.
He came to Texas from the University of Toronto in Canada, where he had no luck starting a body farm: "Provincial law didn't allow it." When he joined the faculty at Texas State University five years ago, he got support from the school, but resistance from the community.
His first proposed site was axed for being too close to private residences and an outlet mall. A second site, near a local airport, drew concerns from pilots, who feared they might hit turkey vultures attracted by decomposing bodies.
"They're relatively rare, but, boy, that would've weighed on me if there had ever been an accident," conceded Dr. Melbye, whose license plate reads "DR4N6" - Dr. Forensics.
There was little opposition to TSU's current site - which is smack in the middle of the 3,000-acre Freeman Ranch. At its current size, Dr. Melbye said, the body farm probably won't have more than six or seven cadavers on it at a time.
Sam Houston State broke ground on its body farm last month - a 1-acre, maximum-security plot on the site of a former fish hatchery. The facility got the university system's go-ahead this spring following a faculty vote, and will have a morgue-type structure on the property by the end of the year. Dr. Bytheway said the first cadavers will be out there "as soon as we can start getting them."
Dr. Bytheway said she's seen the reaction body farms have had elsewhere in the country, and has taken every necessary precaution. The Sam Houston facility is on a dead-end road where the nearest home is more than a mile away. A containment pond will catch any potential runoff. And she had geologists take soil samples to ensure bodily fluids wouldn't be able to leach into the ground.
But they've also used another technique: "We've been really low-key about it," Dr. Bytheway said.
Indeed, few in Huntsville seem to know a body farm is in the works. Reached by phone, the Huntsville mayor, the city manager and the county judge said they supported Sam Houston's forensics research - but that they'd heard nothing about the plans.
"I think we'll probably get a little bit of backlash from the public," Dr. Bytheway said. "But I think when they know we're going to handle it with dignity and the utmost respect, they'll find it's OK."
Dr. Deshaw, the biology professor, said it's not a good sign that so few people in the community are aware. Besides, he said, the land was supposed to be reserved for environmental and biological research, and to preserve endangered woodpeckers that live on the property.
"There must be a site that would be less obtrusive," he said. "I'm not opposed to the idea, just to the location."
Dr. Bytheway, Dr. Melbye and their staffs appear, at the onset, to have thought of everything. Security fences. Padlocks and swipe cards. Double-layered gloves and surgical gowns.
While there's currently just one cadaver on a local body farm - TSU's - there's disproportionate interest. Police departments, the FBI and the Texas Rangers are angling for body farm workshops and field trips, researchers from both universities say. Dr. Melbye said he can only take nine master's students this year, but had 50 apply.
He's had almost as much luck with body donors. A month away from its grand opening, the TSU body farm has received donations from people who don't want to burden their families with burial costs, and those who like the idea that they could help solve other crimes.
Regardless of where the bodies come from, the body farm researchers say they'll be treated with dignity and reverence.
"After every body I analyze, I say a little inward thank-you for letting me look at their body, examine their body," Dr. Bytheway said. "People don't realize the value of the human body after death."