Farm to Market Roads

On November 28, 2010 · 4 Comments

I realized I might give away the secret for today’s topic when I released my recent article, Farm to Market. Sure enough, loyal and very observant reader Benjamin Lukoff noticed the foreshadowing and mentioned something familiar in his comment.[1]

Another article also figures into the triad although it’s not nearly as intuitive. The strangely popular Presidential Places article contained several maps and links. If by some odd chance you’d opened the link for Nixon, Texas, and if you’d been particularly observant you may have noticed another clue. A geographic range similar to this would have appeared:

View Larger Map

I count four "Farm to Market" Roads on this image, and I can find additional instances when I view a larger map. I wasn’t attempting to make that specific point. However it became a nice reminder that I’d included the Texas Farm to Market Road System in the hopper of topics I’d hope to cover eventually. My coincidental stumble into Nixon simply brought it to the forefront. I decided to approach the topic in two parts primarily because of space limitations. Farm to market roads exists everywhere, and in Texas they’re actually hardwired into the transportation network explicitly by name.

Many people aren’t familiar with this system of roads or its variants and cousins throughout the rural United States. Farm to Market does sound a bit like a clever term of art coined specifically by Foodies to describe an ultra-local source of supply. Certainly advertisers and restaurateurs have adopted it with abandon and have hyped it as a catchy marketing gimmick and as a competitive differentiator. It has become so ubiquitous in some circles that it verges on cliché.

Practitioners of the Farm to Market Movement hearken back to an earlier, simpler time before the advent of global agribusiness. They’ve adopted vintage lingo to go along with their time-tested practices. I’m guessing it’s a deliberate attempt to create additional context and legitimacy. It’s an added bonus that "Farm to Market" resonates in such a way that it seems to have been shaped and polished by successive rounds of focus group testing as part of a tailored marketing campaign. Maybe I’m being a tad cynical.

View Farm/Ranch to Market – in a larger map

Texas has another interesting twist. They also have Ranch to Market roads. Texas has a bit of a split personality as a result of its tremendous size, geographic location, climatic differences, and historical context, bridging characteristics of both sides of the continent. People on the western side of the state don’t grow crops, they raise cattle. They don’t live on farms, they live on ranches.

That’s an oversimplified stereotype. Clearly it has less meaning to the many millions of people living in economically and culturally diversified urban areas like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Nonetheless it’s a legacy that’s reflected and reinforced by the official state road system. Roads towards the eastern portion of the state tend to be designated Farm to Market and roads towards the western portion tend to be designated Ranch to Market.

Which Texans skew towards the east and which ones skew towards the west? Which ones are more likely to romanticize the old Confederacy and which ones are more likely to own a cowboy hat and a shiny belt buckle the size of a dinner plate? It’s not a clean split. Nonetheless, Texas decided that it generally follows U.S. Highway 281, the blue line I’ve marked above. The town of Nixon falls east of Route 281. One would expect it to have Farm to Market roads and that is indeed the case.

Then there are strange situations like a location a few miles southwest of Lamesa, Texas — clearly west of Route 281 — that has both Farm and Ranch roads.

View Larger Map

There’s always an exception that blows an all-encompassing theory completely out of the water.

[1]Benjamin, I think you deserve a prize or something for your effort. If you ever make it out this way I’d be glad to offer you a guided tour of whatever slate of local geo-oddities might interest you.

On November 28, 2010 · 4 Comments

4 Responses to “Farm to Market Roads”

  1. Thanks! I might just take you up on that — and let me know the next time you’re in Seattle.

  2. Cape May says:

    Interesting. You know, this all really comes down to the hub & spoke model of business. Farmers had it down pat decades before airlines started to do it.

  3. B says:

    Heh… you’re no Texan, my friend. Cattle industry and culture isn’t just west Texas, it extends up into the Panhandle, down throughout the Valley, even into Houston. Same goes for ranches; King Ranch, one of the largest in the world and probably the most famous one in Texas, is comfortably east of 281, south of Corpus Christi. Oil too. Most may be headquartered in the Houston area, but they’re drilling all over the state. FMs go to ranches, RMs go to farms. It’s not quite as orderly as you’ve made it out to be.

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