Katie Isaacson Hames – El Chorro Ranch, Santa Barbara County, CA
Katie Isaacson Hames is a young blue-eyed mother with a degree in biology and a minor in creative writing. She worked at the local school for eight years and met her husband Will at a farmer’s market. She doesn’t resemble John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, but Katie is a fourth-generation cattle rancher on the Gaviota coast.
“We don’t necessarily look like ranchers. I drive a Subaru Outback when I’m not driving the flatbed.”
Bob and Sally Isaacson brought Katie home as a newborn to El Chorro Ranch. Katie raises her two children in the same house. Helen and Bobby gather eggs, feed horses, check water valves, weed the garden, fix fences.
Her great-grandfather bought the former Spanish land grant in 1939. Her father was an English professor. When she takes trips into town, his former students stop Katie to tell her about the impact Bob Isaacson had on their lives. He was a dedicated writer and local historian, documenting the pioneer ranches of California’s Central Coast in his book, Cattle on a Thousand Hills.
Besides the cow-calf operation, Katie and Will work with conservation stewardship grants, run a pumpkin patch with neighbors, partner with other ranch families to teach classes and host events. Managing a modern ranch in the 21st century calls for connecting with consumers. Katie says this generation wants to know where their food comes from.
“I think as our society’s respect for food grows, their respect for the people growing their food grows. They’re starting to talk more about stewardship instead of ranchers vs. environmentalists. They care more about what they put in their bodies, because what you put in your body also affects the planet. There’s more accountability to the stewards of the land—to the consumer and to the grower. Everybody’s paying more attention.”
In 2022, farming and ranching families make up less than 2% of the American population. The ancient knowledge of good soil, doctoring livestock, the very cycle of life and death, has been lost to grocery stores serving any ingredient in cellophane, in season and out, as a wealthy and suburbanized post-war America left the ancient practice of raising food behind.
Through her family’s workshops, Katie shares ranch life with curious outsiders. She has witnessed a tide of change. Between 2002 and 2007, direct-to-consumer agriculture sales grew 49%. In 1986 there were just two community agriculture programs, by 2006 there were over 1000.
Katie believes the visitors to her ranch are there because they started asking questions about where their food comes from–the quality of the animal’s life, feed, climate impact. An organic apple grown in Chile but sold in California would have a heavy environmental footprint. One recent Australian study found that the climate impact of food miles is up to seven times higher than previously believed–transportation accounts for nearly 20% of total food system emissions.
“I remember in college majoring in biology, friends would ask if I was going to be an environmentalist,” Katie says. “I always thought that was funny. I think ranchers and farmers are the biggest environmentalists.”
Katie partners with uncles Deming and Bill to manage El Chorro. Before her father passed away, he made sure the ranch would be protected permanently with an agricultural easement.
“The day after they signed, I went to the ranch. Dad was kind of wandering around, saying, ‘I finally did something bigger than myself.’”
Bob Isaacson considered securing El Chorro the great contribution of his life.
“My grandmother lived to be 102, and my grandfather’s wish was for her to stay on the ranch and in that house if she wanted to,” Katie says. “The easement paid for her care. I don’t know if the family could have kept the place if it wasn’t for the money from the easement. Our barn was falling down and we were able to restore it. The easement kept us going.”
Cattle have grazed under the oaks of El Chorro since the 1770s. Katie’s great-grandparents bid on the ranch from the steps of the Santa Barbara Courthouse. The world around her has changed, but in the heart of the San Julian Valley, off Highway 1 between the flower fields of Lompoc and the Gaviota coastline, El Chorro Ranch still grazes beef for Santa Barbara County, marked with the Isaacson family’s Quarter Circle Muleshoe brand.
This post was originally written for the California Rangeland Trust.