Listen up, folks, here's a vocabulary lesson from a rancher and writer who’s tired of bad writing distorting Western history.
A ranch is not just any patch of rural
ground, and the saying, "All hat, no cattle," is more than a joke.
It’s true most ranchers prefer not to reveal the size of
their places, but despite differences, a real ranch is measured in
hundreds of acres. To populate the plains, the U.S. government
offered 160 acres to anyone with guts enough to start an
The first folks to raise cattle
on these arid Western acres worked hard to acquire enough land,
grass, and water to make a real ranch. The ones who hung on were
learning to be ranchers.
Anyone whose families are still
ranching has the benefit of several generations learning how cows
and people can survive here. These diehards have studied native
vegetation and wildlife, weather and hardships in a particular
landscape. They know their land and their cattle intimately.
The jacket of a popular author's book says that she lives
on a "40-acre ranch." No real rancher would care to make that
statement. Similarly, only uninformed journalists could write,
"Sen. Jones lives on his10-acre emu ranch." The correct way to
write that sentence would be, "Mr. Jones lives outside town with
his emus." Forty acres, 10 acres -- those are home sites in the
West, not ranches.
A ranch is in the complicated business
of raising certain types of animals to sell at a profit. (Real
ranchers know they may not get a profit every year, know the
business requires long-term commitment.) Large herbivores-- cattle,
horses, or sheep—graze by the hundreds on a real ranch.
Modern ranchers have stretched the definition to include bison, but
emus, ostriches, camels, llamas, mink and other exotic critters
need not apply.
Here's another way to recognize a real
ranch: it's fenced with at least four strands of barbed wire strung
tight on posts set firmly in the ground to keep those big
grass-eaters where the rancher wants them. No self-respecting
rancher would erect plastic made to look like white boards; it's
At some point, after a real estate agent
tried to call 10 acres a ranch; somebody laughed so he coined the
diminutive "ranchette." Have you ever seen an ad for a "farmette?"
Why would anyone want to call himself a rancher when
environmentalists and members of animal-rights activists attack us,
and critics describes us as "land-rapers" --at best. Under our
current political system, the term rancher may connote power and
hint at pools of oil under cactus-strewn acres. This fad will pass,
and it's no excuse for misusing the language.
soberly authoritative American Heritage Dictionary is confused. For
ranch, it says: "An extensive farm, especially in the western
United States, on which large herds of cattle, sheep, or horses are
raised." Wrong; a farm is not a ranch. Some ranches produce crops,
but only as part of the primary business of propagating and selling
the aforementioned grazing animals.
compounds its error: "2. A large farm on which a particular crop or
kind of animal is raised: a mink ranch." BLAP! That's two mistakes,
and a striking example of why ranchers have been too patient with
this nonsense. I pity the poor slob who tried to profit from rats
with dense fur, but when he applied the term ranch to his
enterprise, we should have acted harshly at once.
Moreover, someone who owns a ranch is not a rancher. Sen.
Smartbotham's political ads may say he "owns a cattle ranch in
Oklahoma," but he's a politician, not a rancher. And the term
"corporate rancher" is an oxymoron; a corporation may own a ranch,
but the guy who's calving out the heifers and feeding the cows is
Actually, as a rancher friend comments, he's
probably a hired hand, but because he works daily with cows, he has
more right to the term rancher than the CEO. The point is the same:
owning a ranch doesn't make you a rancher. A rancher has earned his
advanced degree by learning from the land and cattle he -- or she--
A rancher should, at the very least, be able to
glance at any available horizon and know instantly how many cows
are within sight and their breeding. Most real ranchers will also
know how many of them have calves and how soon the calves will be
ready to sell.
To be called a rancher, you have to own
the land and know the cows by name. You disagree? I can fix that;
I've got a pocket knife, and I've decided to be a brain surgeon.