Q: I grew up in South Texas and have lived in the state all my life.
I currently make my home in the Hill Country. I need a definitive answer to a question that’s been the topic of many conversations throughout the years: Is there a difference between a ranch and a farm?

Randy Hroch, New Braunfels

A: This is a great question. And the answer is a little more nuanced than one might think. But before we get to it, let the Texanist begin by highlighting a few semi-pertinent facts. Firstly, among all the states in the Union, Texas ranks at the very top in the number of farming and ranching operations, with a whopping quarter million such outfits occupying almost three quarters of the state’s 268,581 square miles. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s most recent census of agriculture also notes that those operations are responsible for contributing a whopping $25 billion to the economy by way of sales of cattle, cotton, goats, horses, sheep, and the like. Incidentally, Texas is tops in the production of cattle, cotton, goats, horses, and sheep. Since he is in a bragging mood, the Texanist will add that we’re also tops in sales of deer, duck, geese, and quail. And emu! (Though we are something of a laggard when it comes to the production of dry edible beans. Congratulations, North Dakota!)

Because so much of Texas is dedicated to agriculture, and because so many Texans have or once had family connections to that sector or know somebody who has or once had connections to that sector, the rural life still plays a part in most every Texan’s identity. And that’s true even though the vast majority of Texans these days are citified and don’t reside on—or even all that near—a farm or a ranch. 

For instance, when the Texanist was growing up within the city limits of Temple, he was never beyond earshot of lowing cattle or noseshot of the loamy scent of fresh-plowed blackland prairie. The Texanist’s dad, who was a lawyer by trade, owned a small spread south of town, upon which a young Texanist was occasionally forced to partake in such farming and ranching activities as mesquite clearing, brush burning, hay-bale tossing, and barn cleaning, as well as numerous other endeavors that result in profuse sweating and a serious tuckering.

There was, of course, also plenty of standing around with kindly agriculturists talking about the weather, the results of a recent afternoon spent at a favorite fishing hole, or fluctuating sorghum prices. And though the Texanist has for a few decades lived well outside stone-throwing range of any cows, plows, or countryfolk, he retains a soft spot in his heart for the lifestyle—especially the satisfaction derived from the completion of those perspiration-producing tasks. (And, of course, all the fat-chewing.) 

There’s no way of knowing precisely how many Texans share similar formative experiences, but the Texanist would guess there are a lot. However, whether or not one has actually ever gone mano a mano with a stubborn mesquite stump, the Texanist figures it’s important for every Texan to know what they’re talking about when they’re talking about farms and ranches.  

According to the Texanist’s trusty Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, a farm is “a tract of land devoted to agricultural purposes” or “a plot of land devoted to the raising of animals and esp. domestic livestock.” The Texanist found this sort of confusing, given that he has, for the most part, always thought of places devoted to the raising of livestock as ranches. So, feeling confident that this was not the final word on the question at hand, he consulted the USDA, which defines a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the year.” 

This characterization was also confusing to the Texanist, though, as he was aware of an acquaintance of an acquaintance in high school who annually sold at least this amount of “agricultural product” out of his car behind the Sonic on 57th Street, which would, by the USDA’s definition, make this guy’s well-lit bedroom closet a “farm” and, the Texanist supposes, his El Camino a “farm truck.”

With that head-scratcher top of mind, and in an attempt to unmuddy the ol’ stock tank, the Texanist turned to some definitions of a ranch to see if that might help clear things up. Merriam-Webster defines a ranch as a “large farm for raising horses, beef cattle, or sheep,” or “a farm or area devoted to a particular specialty.” The USDA offers no specific definition for “ranch.” 

Given that both of those definitions of a ranch describe it as a kind of farm, the Texanist believes that we can safely conclude that a ranch is, in fact, a kind of farm. Still, it’s bothersome that Merriam-Webster’s second definition of “ranch,” “a farm or area devoted to a particular specialty,” doesn’t specify what sort of specialty that would have to be. Would a farm devoted to raising pomegranates qualify as a ranch? To raising earthworms? Rutabagas? Kumquats? Tiny donkeys? Low-grade closet weed?

The Texanist thinks not. Though, now that he really thinks about it, the Texanist recalls that Texas was once home to a Chicken Ranch, that being La Grange’s famous house of ill repute, which was immortalized onstage and in film as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And then there’s the Big Texan Steak Ranch, located on the outskirts of Amarillo, where one can undertake the “World Famous 72-Ounce Steak Challenge,” which involves trying to eat a four-and-a-half-pound slab of beef in one hour or paying $72 for your trouble. Speaking of steaks, a favorite producer of juicy ones is 44 Farms (not 44 Ranches), located in Cameron, not far from the Texanist’s dad’s old place. 

And, lest we forget, Texas is also home to at least one Snake Farm, located along Interstate 35 between Austin and San Antonio, which was immortalized in song by Ray Wylie Hubbard (and has since changed its name to the less mellifluous Animal World & Snake Farm Zoo). Texas also boasts the famous Cadillac Ranch, which, like the Steak Ranch, is located in Amarillo—and was immortalized by Bruce Springsteen.

Because the dictionary definitions of “ranch” and “farm” are both so semantically squishy, and because there exists no firm naming convention when it comes to the labeling of particular ranching and farming operations, is it any wonder that the Texas hinterlands are peppered with cattle ranches, dairy farms, exotic ranches, cotton farms, goat ranches, sheep farms, emu ranches, ant farms, solar and wind farms, and lots and lots of dude ranches? It is not. 

When it comes to farms, the Texanist mostly just follows the trusty old rule of thumb: you know one when you seed one. You see, Mr. Hroch,
despite what Merriam-Webster would have you think, the Texanist is of the firm mind that farms are, for the most part, places where farmers grow crops and maybe raise some livestock too. Ranches are, for the most part, where ranchers focus on raising livestock. 

One exception to that rule of thumb are those spreads owned by lucky Texans as refuges from the hurly-burly of the city, places to get away from it all and spend a weekend hunting, fishing, or sitting on the porch, shooting the breeze with family and friends. These properties are invariably referred to as ranches—perhaps because they once were working ranches, or were parts of working ranches, or remain, in some minimal fashion, working ranches, so that the owners might claim an “ag exemption” on their taxes. And then there are those who simply refer to their property as a ranch because in Texas “ranch” has a mythical status that “farm” just doesn’t.

At the end of the long day, however, what’s most important isn’t the punctilious distinctions one might make between ranches, farms, ranchettes, farmers’ markets, farm-to-market roads, ranch-to-market roads, pecan groves, community gardens, backyard vegetable gardens, patented vertical aeroponic Tower Gardens, an avocado pit skewered with three toothpicks and partially submerged in a glass of water and placed on a windowsill above the kitchen sink, the recently released Chia Pet in the shape of a bust of Willie Nelson, and the beloved Austin Tex-Mex institution Matt’s El Rancho. What’s important is that all of us acknowledge the industrious farmers and ranchers who spend sunup to sundown working the land, talking about the weather, and managing and caring for an amazing bounty of crops and animals, all in the service of providing us with our foods and fibers and leathers and wind energy and snakes and Cadillacs and illicit good times.

These fine people, whatever you call them, are owed a debt of gratitude. Hail the agrarians!

Video: Stewards of the land

Watch Texas Country Reporter’s profile on Linda Galayda, who left a career in fashion to join her family’s ranching tradition.