If someone were to ask you the difference between a farm and a ranch, would you be able to tell them? While many people use the terms ranch and farm interchangeably, they actually have some very specific differences. They’re both large lots of land and are tended to by hard-working individuals all year long, and most of their hard work ends up in our grocery stores and eventually on our dinner tables. But if you’re thinking about throwing on your overalls and investing in a ranch or farm, it’s important to know the difference in order to find the one that is right for you and your goals.
BY DIANA EASTMAN DECEMBER 21, 2020
What is a farm?
When it comes to understanding the difference between a farm and a ranch, it’s important to remember that all ranches are farms, but not all farms are ranches. A farm is an overarching term to describe a large plot of land that primarily focuses on producing agriculture. There are many different types of farms, such as dairy farms and crop farms. Farms can produce a variety of things, from food and fuel to raw materials like cotton. Although a farm can usually be categorized by its focus on growing crops, dairy farms, hog farms and poultry farms are popular types of farms as well. Farmers have to focus on the soil of their land to ensure it is optimal for growing their crops and maximize the space to get the most out of their land.
A farm is usually smaller in size than a ranch, but this does not mean that the farmer’s workload is less than that of a rancher. Both farmers and ranchers work tirelessly to maintain their land. Farmers tend to spend more time per acre on their land, ensuring in the quality and growth of their crops in each section of their farm. Farmers typically work in fields and spend their time planting, tending to, watering, and collecting whatever it is that they grow. Some farmers focus on one type of plant or animal, others rotate through a variety of options depending on the season. The rotation of crops can cause the spread of bacteria or disease through different crops, which can be devastating for a farmer reliant on a successful season.
Some farms operate secondary businesses to generate extra income. Some small farms, for example, may add a bed and breakfast to their property, or open up to the public for weddings or photoshoots. Farmers can also open their land up to people with metal detectors who enjoy searching for treasure, or open it up as a campsite. Owning a farm is a big investment but can yield a high ROI if done correctly.
Stefanie Bush owns a five-acre goat farm in rural Florida, where she and her family have cows, more chickens than they can count, and 22 goats. One of her daily responsibilities is milking the goats and freezing it to be used as goat milk soap the following day. Stefanie loves the freedom that owning a farm has afforded their family, and credits life on the farm to the significant improvements in the health and happiness of her special needs daughter. When asked about the role of owning farmland on her family, Bush says, “Our kids get to grow up differently than most kids these days. They have lots of freedom to roam and they learn about the circle of life hands on. I personally feel this has made them into better people so far.”
Farms can be five-acre lots a few hours from the theme parks or giant plots of land in the rural west. What each farmer decides to do with their land, their time, their resources and their animals is what makes each farm unique.
What is a ranch?
A ranch is a specific type of farm. Ranches usually carry cattle or sheep, and their primary focus is optimal care of the animals. Ranchers will spend most of their time on four-wheelers or on horseback, strategically herding the animals to different parts of the ranch. Their responsibilities include the managing, breeding and sale of their livestock. Ranches work best when ranchers are intentional about soil management and rain collection, as these two things will produce the best grass for their grazing livestock. When it comes to finding the perfect ranch, it’s important to consider local water sources to ensure the proper hydration of your animals and crops.
Ranches and farms are not passive investments; they both require a lot of work to maintain. While dairy farmers harvest their milk daily to send off to stores and restaurants, ranchers may only sell their cattle once a year. Farmers spend a good amount of money on quality food for their animals, while ranchers rely on the natural vegetation of the land. Farmers usually have a very strict and routine schedule throughout the day while ranchers have a little more time and flexibility in their schedules.
Off-grid ranches are upping their game when it comes to luxury, comfort and conveniences. Spacious ranches tucked away from the lights and sounds of the big city are becoming a more popular investment, as modern technology is taking “roughing” it to a more glamorous level. Off-grid ranches still offer the privacy and beauty of a traditional ranch, and combine modern conveniences like solar panels to replace electricity, while relying on old-school methods like wood and propane for heat.
How to buy a ranch/farm
When you finally decide you want to be a farmer or rancher and it’s time to start the buying process, it’s vital to follow these steps to ensure a smooth transaction:
- Visit the land—don’t just go by pictures online. You have to be there to get a good idea of what the terrain is like, how easily accessible it is, what the views are like and how close it is to the bigger cities.
- Evaluate the zoning. Make sure this farmland is actually farmland and zoned for raising crops and livestock.
- Be aware of property lines—get a survey done so you know exactly where you lot ends and begins.
- Know everything there is to know about the property’s water rights.
- Ask questions about the history of the land and how it was used by previous owners.
- Overestimate everything. From the number of people it’ll take to run the farm successfully to how long it’ll take to see a decent ROI, always assume it’s going to take longer and cost more than you’re expecting.
- Get the right tools—you’re going to need to know how to work a variety of different farming tools to ensure the productivity of your land. Getting familiar with different types of machinery will make managing your farm/ranch that much easier.
Investing in a ranch or farm is not only rewarding, but means a long-term commitment to profitability, freedom, flexibility and the opportunity to leave a legacy for the next generation.
Originally published 7/20/2018, updated 12/21/2020.