On the front lines in Texas’ Ranch wars

Rich Texans want homes on the range; national brokerages want a piece of the market

(IStock, photo-illustration by Steven Dilakian/The Real Deal)
(IStock, photo-illustration by Steven Dilakian/The Real Deal)

When Covid arrived in March of 2020, third-generation Texas ranch broker Sam Middleton thought it meant a few weeks out of the office. Then reality hit. A letter arrived from a buyer who was about to close on a $4.5 million property, terminating the deal and demanding the return of $250,000 in escrow.

“It was when they shut down the Las Vegas strip,” Middleton said. “For about a month or six weeks, the phone just quit ringing and I thought, ‘Oh, my lord, what’re we in for?’ And then all of a sudden, the phones started ringing and it went absolutely crazy.”

It turns out the pandemic was good for the ranch business — and nowhere more than in Texas, which made up 14.6 percent of U.S. land sales in 2021. Middleton, who works with a real estate research center on rural land values in Texas, says his colleagues estimate that the state’s land value rose 29 percent in 2021. Ranch sales in the state almost doubled in the second quarter of 2021 from the previous year, according to the Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University. Total dollar volume of Texas land sales reached a record $3.4 billion last year, up 97.6 percent over 2020. 

As for the buyer, who wrote to Middleton, he got his money back in exchange for paying the seller’s legal fees. But five months later, Middleton was able to sell that ranch at a 4 percent markup. 

New players

The latest newcomer, Douglas Elliman announced its Farm & Ranch division in April, citing “tremendous growth in the farm and ranch sector due to increased migration from urban centers to rural areas,” as popularized in “Yellowstone” and other romantic depictions of life on the range. 

However, the New York-based brokerage of “Million Dollar Listing” fame was late to the party. Big brokerages had already flown to the market like bees to honey. Keller Williams Realty launched its Farm & Ranch Division in 2014, and major player Hall and Hall dropped down to Texas in 2007. Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s Ranch and Land Division, which came on the scene in 2015, already controls 32 percent of the market with a total sales volume of $371 million last year, according to land.com. 

When Middleton entered the business in the 1970s, the buyers were professional ranchers and farmers. “Now, most of our sales are either recreation or just people with money that they don’t know what to do with,” he said. He first noticed the shift when the stock market crashed in the 1980s and land started to look like the superior investment. It was also the time when J.R. Ewing and his family’s backstabbing was unfolding in front of a scenic Texas ranch in the TV series “Dallas.” 

Tractor therapy

Candy Evans, who tours luxury ranches across the state for Candy’s Dirt, her popular blog, and claims to have “brought house porn to the Bible Belt,” has a simple explanation for the emotional draw of ranch life. 

“It is about getting out in the wild open,” she said. “The stars are your lights, and at first that can be kind of scary, but it’s also beautiful because you really are one with nature. This is what we were all about before we built these cities.” 

Despite the influx of national brokerages, the rural land and ranch market is still dominated by a small, tight-knit community of a few hundred mostly local brokers born and bred in Texas.

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Either way, buyers trust a broker more when he or she wears classic Western wear, said Evans. 

“It’s totally the costume,” she said, laughing. “If you don’t have a bolo tie and a cowboy hat, why would I trust you?”

Tyler Thomas, a native Texan who donned a white cowboy hat for his headshot, was Briggs Freeman Sotheby’s top-ranking individual broker for 2021. Hunting, horseback riding and fishing are what Texans like Thomas call “tractor therapy.” 

He estimates that 40 percent of his team’s total sales last year were off-market, sold via local networking. In fact, Middleton collaborated with Hall and Hall for the $170 million T. Boone Pickens Ranch. 

Rural properties within 90 minutes of the Dallas-Fort Worth area are Thomas’ team’s bread and butter. “They’re gone before they hit the market,” Thomas said, adding that not feeling like you were in the car longer than you were on the property is a big priority for someone considering dropping millions on a second home. Thomas was responsible for Sotheby’s biggest sale of 2021, the 6,000-acre Rocosa Ridge Ranch, to a businessman from DFW for $26,350,000. 

The pandemic meant that a second home became a potential second office, and families finally had time to go out and look at ranches — a weekend-long process.


On the other side of this market are the big fish, including the 6666 Ranch, or the Four-Sixes — best known for being the backdrop of “Yellowstone.” Before Hollywood discovered the majesty of this 266,000-acre property, it was already deeply tied to Texas history as it was founded by legendary cattle rancher Samuel Burk Burnett. The ranch eventually went to his granddaughter Anne Burnett Marion, a celebrated businesswoman and philanthropist.  

“She was one of the sweetest women I’ve ever known,” Middleton said of his long-time friend, “from the way she treated her employees to the respect she had in the ranching community.” When Marion died in 2019, she put in her will that the Four-Sixes and its adjacent properties were to be sold to a single buyer, and she named Middleton as the man she wanted as the listing agent. Middleton then had to sell three ranches in a single transaction of $341 million. After rejecting buyers only interested in one unit or another, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who was filming “Yellowstone” on the main ranch at the time, stepped in. 

“It was a pretty long, drawn-out process,” Middleton said of the transaction. “It was a complete turnkey sale. It included all of the cattle, all of the horses — and I’m talking about some high-dollar horses — the farming equipment, the ranching equipment… but it worked.”

In terms of size, the Four-Sixes pales in comparison to the Waggoner Ranch, 560,000 acres of a ranch that Middleton sold to a Walmart heiress for $720,000,000. 

“I showed that ranch a little over 50 times,” Middleton said, “I showed that ranch to 16 groups of foreign investors and I’m talking all over the world. I’m talking about South Korea, Japan, France, Spain, England.”

Middleton recalls giving tours in his mud-soaked boots to a pair of investors with briefcases and three cell phones each. 

“They couldn’t tell a cow from a tractor,” he said.