The ranch is the basis of much of Texas history and myth. Earth is built into the DNA of our state; early Texans were drawn to its abundance.
Sam Middleton began selling the ranch in 1971, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. His Lubbock company, Chas. S. Middleton and son have been in business for over a hundred years, and Middleton has been involved in the sale of some of Texas’ most famous ranches, including Matador, Four Sixes, and in 2016 Wagoner Ranch, which was probably the largest ranch sale in history. He recently sold T. Boone Pickens’ 65,000-acre Mesa Vista Ranch, located in the far 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 animal husbandry. There was no recreation market. All of our ranch sales during my first ten to fifteen years were focused on agriculture, livestock and farming. I remember stalking my father in the early days. We were at somebody’s ranch and they were like, “Sam, if you ever want to go out and shoot quails or something, please.” The landowners did not understand the financial value of recreation or hunting. They didn’t charge for it. We will never receive such invitations again.
TM: When did it change?
Middleton: It just evolved over the years. The first person I ever sold a ranch to who focused on recreation was an Arkansas oilman. He wanted to come to Texas and buy a quail ranch. It was probably around 1988. I sold him a fifteen thousand acre ranch in Kent. [halfway between Abilene and Lubbock]and he only bought it to hunt quail. I couldn’t imagine anyone doing this. I think it sold for eighty-five dollars an acre, and today it would probably bring in ten times what he paid for it.
TM: Why then did it seem unusual to you?
Middleton: There has never been a true market for hunting licenses. The ranchers did not see the future value of this income stream. But since the late 1980s, people have begun to understand that there is value in recreation, and now this is driving the market.
TM: How much has sales activity increased in the last fifty years?
Middleton: I would say that in the seventies we made ten to fifteen million a year selling farms and ranches. [equivalent to about $65 million in 2022]. Now we make from seven hundred to eight hundred million a year.
TM: Are higher interest rates dampening activity?
Middleton: Right now, when these interest rates are doubling, it slows things down. It is still a seller’s market. Less desirable places that we really had a lot of demand for because the market was very hot – these deals are stagnating and not selling. But your first-class ranches, your first-class, well-maintained ranches, there is still a lot of demand for them.
TM: Livestock farming is not very profitable these days. Why do people buy ranches?
Middleton: For the romance of cattle breeding. This is the pride of the owner. And this is a long-term assessment. Since the 1960s, rural land prices have risen at an average rate of about six percent a year, thanks to recessions, booms and all. Land values jumped twenty percent in 2021, the biggest increase we’ve seen since tracking these trends.
TM: What does the sale of all these legendary ranches mean for Texas?
Middleton: It’s a little sad. Most of the ranches I deal with are family owned.
belongs. With these old ranch families, the second, third, fourth generation have no attachment, no appreciation of this ranch, like the people who built it. One family starts a deal and has an empire, but in two or three generations there may be twenty-five heirs. And they’re looking at this asset, which is worth a hundred million dollars, and they’re making almost no income from it. So why not just sell it? They each walk away with several million dollars and can do whatever they want.
TM: What are the biggest sales you have seen in recent years?
Middleton: We have sold the main division of 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 500,000-acre Wagoner Ranch.
TM: Who buys such iconic objects?
Middleton: Every deal is different. The guy who bought Swenson’s ranch is a very big rancher and he’s expanding his holdings. He makes a living from the ranch. We divided the Matador into about five different sections. It was 131,000 acres, and we sold it to different people, all of whom were involved in agriculture in one way or another. [Yellowstone cocreator] Taylor Sheridan was, of course, the face of the group that bought the Four Sixes. He’s going to use it for ranching and he’s good at horse breeding, but he’s also going to make movies there. So he’s going to add another source of income and that’s kind of the key if you want to keep a property like this.
TM: Historically, ranchers have turned to oil and gas exploration and other sources of income to support pastoralism. What alternative income do they use today?
Middleton: Many people rent out their hunting. Wagoner Ranch has over 500,000 acres that have never been commercially hunted. It’s a big deal to say that there’s an eight hundred square miles of land here that has never been commercially hunted. This is a huge asset. It’s the same with the Four Sixes – they’ve never been hunted commercially. And then you have branding. They have Four Sixes beer; they have the Four Sixes chili. They have caps and vests and they sell yellowstone brand. Things fly off the shelves.
Of course, you have solar energy, wind energy, water sales, gravel, sand. There are many different things that will contribute to earning. There is a lot of talk about carbon tax credits. It will be a while before this really takes off, but it could be a future source.
TM: Not everyone who buys a ranch is looking for income or investment. What other reasons do people buy rural property?
Middleton: They are looking for a place to take the family. They need picturesque places where they can ride quad bikes or horseback riding. They are fond of hunting and fishing. living water [streams that don’t dry up in the summer] also a big deal. Basically, they want a place where they can go.
TM: What to look for when buying a ranch?
Middleton: There are so many things – location, access, land quality. Water is a big problem in West Texas. There are many places 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 pay enough attention to this when they buy a small weekend ranch or something like that. I advise the sellers to do an ecological survey of the ranch before we go to the market. You have to check the soil, check water sources, find dumps and other things to make sure there are no problems.
TM: Given the changes you’ve seen, what do you think Texas ranches will be like in the next fifty years?
Middleton: We are seeing more and more ways to use the land because of the recreational market – hunting, fishing, places that allow people to come to a big ranch. I have two ranches that I have bought over the years that I keep together to pass on to my children. They have risen in price. Earth is a safe place to store money for the long term. We have some dips in the market; we have some slowdowns. But in general, the land rose in price almost every year. In addition, you have the pleasure of running a ranch.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article first appeared in the February 2023 issue of the journal. Texas Monthlywith the heading “Rancho for sale.”Subscribe today.