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What's the difference between ranch-to-market and farm-to-market roads in Austin?

 A road sign for a ranch-to-market road
Gabriel C. Pérez
A listener wanted to know whether ranch-to-market and farm-to-market roads actually lead to ranches or farms.

This story was originally published on May 4, 2018.

Farm-to-market and ranch-to-market roads have helped rural Texans get around since the 1940s. But what happens when these roads become completely surrounded by the city, with fewer ranches and farms on route? The seemingly odd road names caught one listener's curiosity.

"I moved [to Austin] after college," Jonathan Robison said, "and as I was driving down I-35 ... with all my stuff, there were all these signs for 'FM' and 'RM,' 'ranch-to-market" or 'farm-to-market.' And I said, 'OK, that's an interesting way to name roads.'"

That got him wondering: Do these roads actually lead to a ranch or a farm or neither? So, he submitted the question to KUT's ATXplained project.  

A Bit Of Semantics

"The FM road system, the farm-to-market road system, was designed and carried out right after World War II," said Chris Bishop with the Texas Department of Transportation or TxDOT. "It was designed, as all the roads in Texas were at that time, to get the farmers out of the mud."

That was all well and good, but there was a group that began to feel left out.

"Now, the difference between an FM and an RM is mostly semantics," he said. "On the western side of the state – for the most part west of I-35 – there are more ranchers. And the ranchers said, 'Wait a minute. Shouldn't this be a ranch-to-market road system?'"

It may be semantics, but the words were important to the state.

In 1956, the state changed some of the farm roads to ranch roads. But selecting which ones and where was a bit of an inexact science.

 A view down Ranch-to-Market Road 2222 in West Austin.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
A view down Ranch-to-Market Road 2222 in West Austin.

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"I don't think anyone has the definitive, all-knowing answer," said Brian Purcell, also known as the Texas Highway Man. He runs a website by the same name, exhaustively detailing the state's roads.

"TxDOT will tell you the dividing line is [Highway] 281," he said. "Anything east of 281, they call farm-to-market and everything west of 281, they call ranch-to-market."

Purcell says that line is pretty "nebulous," though.

"Somebody did a really nice map on Wikipedia that shows all the different farm-to-market and ranch-to-market roads," he said. "You can see that really the cluster of ranch-to-market roads is in the Hill Country and then kind of west across the Edwards Plateau."

Even more nebulous is how TxDOT labels the roads. For example, signage for 620 from Round Rock, through the edge of Austin and down to Bee Cave reads "RANCH 620." But when exiting from freeways, you will have to take the "F.M. 620" exit.

Essentially Interchangeable

Not far from the intersection of 620 and 2222 – two ranch-to-market roads that you can also call farm roads – is Blue Star Ranch.

Mary Ann Fordyce, the owner of Blue Star, calls herself "The Chicken Lady." With an eye toward retirement, she recently moved her cage-free, non-GMO chicken ranch to Austin from Bellville.

"We found a good location by the lake. It is much smaller than I wanted. Even though it's a farm-to-market road, it's really quite busy out here," she said. "It's kinda city-fied."

 Mary Ann Fordyce, owner of Blue Star Ranch, stands in a barn surrounded by chickens.
Credit Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
Mary Ann Fordyce, the owner of Blue Star Ranch, says even though she's on a farm (or ranch) road, it's really busy.

That a chicken rancher calls 620 a farm road is OK. The terms farm-to-market and ranch-to-market are essentially interchangeable, Bishop said.

"FM more to the east. RM to the west, but there are some crossovers in that area," he said.

To the state, both roads are part of the farm-to-market system. The highway numbers don't overlap. To TXDOT, an RM is an FM – unless it's a UR.

UR stands for urban road. It's the designation that farm roads get when they're no longer surrounded by open fields. Since 1995, farm- and ranch-to-market roads in cities, like the previously mentioned 2222 and 620, have been officially renamed URs. So, where are the signs?

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TxDOT started to change the signs in Texas cities to say "urban" and then the number, Purcell said, but "there was actually kind of a grassroots revolt."

"People thought that was kind of un-Texan," he said; they said the new signs were boring and cost too much. "And TxDOT got so much blowback on that they said, 'OK, we'll leave the signs. We'll let people still call them farm-to-market or ranch-to-market, but internally we'll reclassify them as urban roads.'"

So, to answer Robison's question: Ranch-to-market roads are mainly around the Hill Country and west. At least at one time, ranch and farm roads led to ranches and farms. All RMs are also FMs, while some RMs and FMs are actually URs, but nobody calls them that.

Hope that clears that up.

Jimmy is the assistant program director, but still reports on business and sports every now and then. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.
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