The ranch is the foundation of much of Texas’s history and myth. The land is baked into our state’s DNA; early Texans were drawn to its abundance.
Sam Middleton started selling ranches in 1971, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. His Lubbock-based company, Chas. S. Middleton and Son, has been in business for more than one hundred years, and Middleton has been involved in selling some of Texas’s most famous ranches, including the Matador, the Four Sixes, and, in 2016, the Waggoner Ranch, which was likely the biggest ranch sale in history. He recently sold T. Boone Pickens’s 65,000-acre Mesa Vista Ranch, located in the farthest reaches of the Panhandle.
Texas Monthly: How would you describe the ranch market when you started fifty years ago?
Sam Middleton: Everything was focused on livestock. There was no recreation market. All of our ranch sales for my first ten to fifteen years were focused on agriculture, livestock, and farming. I remember following my dad around back in the early days. We’d be on somebody’s ranch, and they’d say, “Sam, if you ever want to come out and shoot some quail or something like that, you’re welcome.” The landowners did not perceive the financial value of recreation or hunting. They didn’t charge for it. We never get an invitation like that anymore.
TM: When did that change?
Middleton: It just evolved over the years. The first person that I ever sold a ranch to who was focused on recreation was an oilman out of Arkansas. He wanted to come to Texas and buy a quail-hunting ranch. This would have probably been about 1988. I sold him a fifteen-thousand-acre ranch in Kent County [halfway between Abilene and Lubbock], and he bought it just to hunt quail on. I couldn’t imagine somebody would do that. I think it sold for eighty-five dollars an acre, and today it would probably bring ten times what he paid for it.
TM: Why did that seem unusual to you at the time?
Middleton: There had never been a real market for leasing hunting rights. The ranchers didn’t see the coming value of that income stream. But beginning in the late nineteen-eighties, people started realizing that there was value in recreation, and now that drives the market.
TM: How big an increase in sales activity have you seen in the past fifty years?
Middleton: Back in the seventies, I would say we did about ten million to fifteen million a year in farm and ranch sales [equivalent to about $65 million in 2022]. Now we do around seven hundred million to eight hundred million a year.
TM: Have higher interest rates put a damper on activity?
Middleton: Right now, with these interest rates doubling, that’s slowing things down. It’s still a seller’s market. The less desirable places, which we did have a lot of demand for because the market was so hot—those deals are becoming stagnant and not selling. But your premier ranches, your first-class, well-maintained ranches—there’s still a lot of demand for them.
TM: The cattle business isn’t very lucrative these days. Why do people buy ranches?
Middleton: For the romance of ranching. It’s pride of ownership. And it’s the long-term appreciation. Since the sixties, rural land prices have appreciated at an average of about six percent per year, and that’s through recessions and booms and everything else. In 2021 land values jumped twenty percent—the biggest appreciation we’ve seen since we’ve been tracking those trends.
TM: What does it mean for Texas to have all these legendary ranches sold off?
Middleton: It’s kind of sad. Most of the ranches I deal with are family-
owned. With these old ranch families, the second, third, fourth generation do not have the attachment, the appreciation of that ranch like the people that put it together. One family starts the deal and has an empire, but in two or three generations, there might be twenty-five heirs. And they’re looking at this asset that’s worth one hundred million dollars, and they’re barely getting any income at all out of it. So why not just sell it? Each of them walks off with a few million dollars and can go do what they want.
TM: What are some of the biggest sales you’ve seen in recent years?
Middleton: We sold a major division of the Swenson Ranches [located in Stamford, near Abilene]. We sold the Four Sixes, the Matador, and in 2016, I was one of two brokers representing the seller of the Waggoner Ranch, which is more than five hundred thousand acres.
TM: Who’s buying iconic properties like these?
Middleton: Every deal’s different. The guy who bought the Swenson Ranch is a very large rancher, and he’s expanding his holdings. He makes a living out of ranching. We cut the Matador into about five different tracts. It was 131,000 acres, and we sold it to different people, all of whom were involved in agriculture in some way. [Yellowstone cocreator] Taylor Sheridan, of course, was the face of the group that bought the Four Sixes. He’s going to use it for ranching purposes, and he’s big in the horse industry, but he’s also going to be making movies out there. So he’s going to be adding another source of income, and that’s kind of key if you want to hold on to a property like that.
TM: Historically, ranchers turned to oil and gas development and other sources of revenue to support ranching. What alternative revenue are they using today?
Middleton: A lot of people are leasing their hunting out. The Waggoner Ranch has more than 500,000 acres that have never been commercially hunted. That’s a big deal, when you can say here’s a plot of land, eight hundred square miles, that has never been commercially hunted. That is a huge asset. Same thing with the Four Sixes—that’s never been commercially hunted. And then you’ve got the branding. They’ve got a Four Sixes beer; they’ve got a Four Sixes chili. They’ve got the caps and the vests, and they’re merchandising the Yellowstone brand. The stuff is flying off the shelves.
Of course, you’ve got solar energy, wind energy, water sales, gravel, sand. There’s a lot of different things that will contribute to income. There’s a lot of talk about carbon tax credits. It’s going to be a little while before that really takes off, but that could be a future source.
TM: Not everyone who buys a ranch is looking for income or investment. What are some other reasons people are buying rural property?
Middleton: They’re looking for a place to take the family. They want scenic places where they can go on four-wheelers or go horseback riding. They enjoy hunting and fishing. Live water [streams that don’t dry up in the summer] is also a big thing. Basically, they want a place where they can get away.
TM: What are things to consider when buying a ranch?
Middleton: There are so many things—location, access, land quality. Out in West Texas, the big issue is water. There’s a lot of areas out here where we can’t even get drinking water. Or maybe you can get water, but it’s very poor quality. A lot of people don’t give that fair consideration when they’re buying a small weekend ranch or whatever. I advise sellers to get an environmental study on the ranch before we go to market. You’ve got to check the soils, check the water sources, look for dump pits and other things to make sure there’s not an issue.
TM: Given the changes that you’ve seen, what do you think Texas ranches will be like in the next fifty years?
Middleton: We’re seeing more and more uses for land because of the recreation market—the hunting, the fishing, the places that let people come out for the big ranch experience. I have two ranches that I’ve purchased over the years that I’ve held together so that I can pass them to my kids. They’ve gone up in value. Land is a safe place to park money for the long term. We have some dips in the market; we have some slowdowns. But overall, land has gone up nearly every year. Plus you have the enjoyment of the ranch.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Selling the Ranch.” Subscribe today.