Story By K. Reka Badger
Photographs by Mehosh Dziadzio
Throughout the 19th century, Spanish-speaking Californios transformed vast tracts of western land into thriving cattle ranches. Legendary horsemen, they hosted elaborate fiestas, helped fellow vaqueros with branding and round-ups, and stoked California’s nascent economy with a steady supply of beef, tallow and hides.
Although the Golden State’s storied vaqueros have faded into history, a vibrant reminder of their cowboy culture lives on in Santa Barbara County. At Hollister Ranch, a spread of 14,500 pristine acres stretching north from Gaviota, a group of dedicated residents is growing grass-fed beef the old-fashioned way.
Cattle roam the coastal flats and canyons of the ranch just as they did 200 years ago, browsing native bunch grasses and napping under gnarled oak trees. Cowboys and herding dogs nudge them from pasture to pasture, and when it’s time to brand or round up the stock, volunteers help with the work, prepare a feast and then celebrate together when the chores are done.
“The brandings are fun!” declares Kathi Carlson, a Hollister Ranch resident and genuine cowgirl. “It’s a whole community thing, where other ranches come and a lot of cooking goes on. It’s a lifestyle, really, the riding and roping, and I love all of it.
“You’re always learning more,” she continues, her blond hair shining under a white straw cowboy hat. “The grass-fed beef is a perfect example, because we got into it and there’s so much growth in the whole thing, it keeps unfolding.”
Within the borders of Hollister Ranch lie 136 100-acre parcels, many with multiple owners. Such a plurality poses challenges for reaching consensus on just about any issue, but in 1977, the residents agreed to preserve their rangeland by pooling their grass. Hollister Ranch Owners Association (HROA) formed Hollister Ranch Cooperative, and since then, the co-op has leased pastureland to area cattlemen who prefer natural forage for grazing their stock.
“We lost more pasture to private development the first two years than we have the last 38,” reveals ranch manager John McCarty, who has lived and been employed at Hollister Ranch for four decades.
“The residents have worked hard and made a huge commitment to continue a legitimate cattle operation on the ranch,” he continues. “It’s a tough environment to do so, and they should be complimented.”
Advantages of the operation include consistent control of opportunistic weeds and reduction of the fuel that feeds wildfires. It also encourages smart water management, for instance, by locating troughs on ridgetops and away from creeks to protect riparian habitats.
In 2012, HROA’s cooperative boldly expanded from merely selling forage to growing prime grass-fed beef for market. The innovative program was spearheaded by McCarty, who views it as a way to diversify ranch operations.
“We’re certainly not trying to change our business from a commercial cattle ranch to strictly grass-fed beef,” explains McCarty, a weather-worn cowboy with an easy smile. “It’s just so we’ve got another niche in the market.”
Despite some initial balking over potential inconveniences ranging from loose cattle to cow pies on the road, the majority of residents approved implementation of the grass-fed beef program. McCarty credits his people skills, above his ranching know-how, for bringing such a diverse populace to the table.
The success of the program not only enhances the ranch’s status as an agricultural preserve, but it might even put a little extra money in residents’ pockets. To McCarty and his band of mostly volunteer wranglers, however, raising grass-fed beef means they can work as cowboys, plying the dusty rough-and-tumble trade they treasure.
“It’s real life,” says Carlson, who volunteers four days a week for the co-op. “I love riding with the cattle, going out in the morning and dropping hay when they need it. I help with everything, even taking them to the butcher and helping with the cuts. To do all of it makes it a full picture,” she muses, “so it all makes sense. Every day is different and that’s one of the things I love about it.”
The path to growing a palatable product proved a bit steep, for McCarty was determined that the meat be lean and healthful, yet tasty and tender. To help flatten the learning curve, he hired a cattleman from Argentina, which is famous for its succulent grass-fed beef.
“I’ve raised my own beef to eat for the past 40 years, but very little of it was grass fed,” McCarty admits, “and I wanted to develop a product that we would all enjoy.
“We learned a lot,” he smiles, “and we’ve come up with a program where we’re able to harvest an animal that’s a little younger than is typically harvested, and in a little better condition.”
When choosing cattle for the Hollister Ranch brand, McCarty selects body types that indicate a predisposition to fattening up on grass alone. He also looks at disposition, which he believes directly affects the quality of the meat.
“If they’re quiet and laid back, the meat is usually more tender,” he explains, running a sunburned hand through dark, wavy hair. “They’re not stressing out, so there’s no adrenaline running through their bodies. All this adds into the flavor and tenderness of the meat, and that’s huge.”
Last year, the co-op harvested close to 35,000 pounds of grass-fed beef, all raised in open pastures and strictly hormone- and antibiotic-free. The meat is sold under two labels: Single Source Beef, which is ground from a single animal for higher quality, and the superlative Cowboy’s Pick.
“I’m the cowboy, and I hand-pick it,” McCarty chuckles. “Cowboy’s Pick is typically a younger animal than what most people are harvesting and prepared in a way that allows it not to have to work very hard to get full on grass. Couch potatoes are what we really are trying to raise out here.
“The flavor is not super strong,” he says, “and the biggest thing is that the tenderness is still there. The moisture content is probably a third less, so you want to cook it slower, over lower heat. We cook on wood a lot and always make sure the grill’s off the fire a little bit more.”
Hollister Ranch’s grass-fed beef is available at independent markets throughout Santa Barbara County. For members of Hollister Ranch Beef Club, monthly shipments of select cuts—including prime rib, rib eyes and New York steaks—arrive right on the doorstep.
Carlson manages the beef club shipments and usually includes recipes and tips for preparing the extra-lean meat. A graphic designer by trade, she also creates the look of the packaging.
“What I find people really like,” she says, “is that the delivery’s free and when it comes, their freezers are full, so they don’t have to go to the store for meat. Grass-fed beef is hard to find and people are becoming members for health reasons, but mostly because they like our meat!”
Cattle have browsed Hollister Ranch since 1794, when Spanish vaqueros arrived equipped with the spurs, saddles and looping reatas of their trade. Thanks to a passionate group of workers, volunteers and forward-thinking ranch owners, the glorious spread of coastal flats and wooded canyons remains a thriving cattle ranch, where latter-day wranglers still savor the pleasures of cowboy life.
For more information about Hollister Ranch Cooperative Grass Fed Beef, call 805/567-5099 or visit www.hrcooperativebeef.com.