Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Introductory Essay for "Cattle Upon A Thousand Hills," 2003

Hollister Estate Company Cowboys, Bud and Ron Howerton, Rancho Santa Anita, 1940s

“For every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.”   Psalm 50

In the mid 1960s my family and I went to the last Hollister Estate Company branding held on the Las Cruces Ranch near Gaviota. The Hollister family members had recently voted to sell their four ranches comprising some 32,000 acres in the southern part of the county. The property was now in escrow with a land company that would break it up and eventually subdivide most of it into 100-acre ranchettes. A large herd of Hereford cows and calves had been gathered in the back part of the valley, and it seemed like everyone that I knew or had heard about in Santa Barbara ranching circles was there watching or taking part in the final branding: Bill and Nancy Luton, Frank Pacheco, Pida and Helen Pedotti, Alice and Duke Sedgwick, Vicente Ortega, Dibbs Poett, Bill and Margaret Cooper, Charlie Sudden are just a handful that I can recall now.

This big social occasion marked the end of an era. It was a family’s farewell to the business that had been a big part of their lives since the middle of the last century. There was an open bar and large barbeque. Calves were being roped, thrown, and marked with the WH brand. Clouds of dust and smoke drifted across the dirt corral. The warm May sun was tempered by a small, cool breeze blowing off the hills to the west. People joked and laughed. Montecito socialites wearing broad straw hats and quiet, old, sunburned cowboys descended from the first Californios mingled together momentarily. The men and women who were roping placed their cocktail glasses on fence posts, and, in between heading and heeling calves, they each rode to their particular fence post along the corral to sip whiskey or gin while waiting for a fresh batch of calves.

As a teenager, I roped in that branding on my bay horse, Muff, participating in an age old, uninterrupted, seasonal ritual that had its origins centuries ago along the marshy coasts of Spain. In these unpopulated areas of the Iberian Peninsula, livestock operations utilized horsemen, hot-iron branding, and large-scale herding techniques in the management of cattle. The cattle were not tame, but, in fact, semi-wild. This management style sharply contrasted with the small-scale, intensive cattle farming operations of northern Europe in which cattle were herded on foot and moved from one small field to another. In the New World, this European cattle farming tradition was carried on in New England, the South, Appalachia, and the Midwest. However, the Spanish cattle-raising tradition took a strong hold in New Spain, including Texas, New Mexico, and Alta California, with the sprawling, aristocratic land grants or ranchos. Even today, some of these holdings remain enormous. For example, the Tejon Ranch, made up of three or four Mexican era ranchos, just a short drive north of Los Angeles, is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Basically, nothing much in the Spanish cattle-raising system has changed over the last several centuries. In most of Santa Barbara County, cattle roam freely over large expanses of semi-arid grazing land, only to be gathered in the spring to be branded for proof of ownership, and then to be sold later in the summer or fall. Other more subtle strands of the Spanish tradition also became deeply embedded in California’s ranching culture. Braided rawhide reins with complex knots, long riatas, highly decorated silver spade bits and spurs, straight-legged riders, neck-reining horses, and a huge pride in horsemanship–all of this and much more the Spaniards had learned from the Moors of northern Africa who invaded southern Spain and occupied parts of it for centuries. As one looks closely at the pictures in this collection, all gleaned from the photo albums of our county’s ranching families, many of these traditions, both obvious and subtle, can still be observed.

While a freeway and lesser highways have cut through the coast range and across the rolling hills of the county, and exclusive gated communities, miles of new vineyards, several golf courses, and big box shopping malls have begun to border our highways, most of the time, just across the barbwire fence, cattle continue to graze under the oaks on ranches ranging from a few hundred acres to over 35,000 acres. Whatever the scale, it is quite certain that no one is making much money in the cattle business these days. The phrase “cattle business” is itself an oxymoron. The industry has been chronically depressed for decades because of rising property values and taxes, foreign imports, unpredictable rainfall, and static prices. Grazing land now sells for $1000 to $10,000 an acre or more, and 10 acres might support one cow, which at best might net a rancher $200. If someone were to buy a ranch in our county today, the cattle operation on that land might yield as little as a .02% return on the total investment, hardly a healthy return for such a capital venture.  A member of a long-time ranching family recently stated this dilemma succinctly: “It’s a business in which you spend a lot to make a little.”

In the recent decades of the last century, Santa Barbara County’s open grazing land has become economically disconnected from the cattle business itself. Rangeland is no longer at all valuable because of its rare and bountiful annual forage of rye grass, burr clover, and wild oats, as it still was during the first two thirds of the 20th century. The acres and acres of open grazing land we see as we drive through the beautiful back roads of our county are now, quite frankly, “pre-development land.” Groups of fat cattle grazing on our golden hills may give these open spaces the solid appearance of agriculture, but in reality the true value of ranch land has absolutely nothing to do with the cattle business. Today, people from all over the world want to own a piece of our county’s hills, even a very small piece, and land has become something desirable in and of itself for rustic, weekend hideaways; places to retire and build a palatial home; or hobby ranches. The market value of raw ranch land, especially after it has been broken down into minimum parcel sizes, has done nothing less than explode. In the 21st Century, the cattle business, once clearly the economic centerpiece of our county, will likely become something less than an afterthought.  

Nonetheless, when a grazing lease becomes available anywhere, cattlemen have to stand in line in order to bid on it. Today, fewer and fewer cattle people own much, if any, land at all. It is quite likely that many of our local cattlemen are just tenants on pastureland owned by absentee land owners, outside investors banking on the future development value of their real estate holdings. Nonetheless, old ways die hard, and no one in the cattle business seems to be able to resist the opportunity to run a few more cows. Cattlemen today certainly will not get rich, but they probably won’t go broke either. It’s more like an addiction than an investment. They will complain like hell about regulations, weather, and the price of cattle and hay, but when it comes down to the bottom line, it is not a financial bottom line at all that matters. Breaking even will suffice. What really matters is taking pride in what they do and having a damn good time doing it. I think that is a theme that quietly emerges from all of these photos of ranch life. Look closely at them. The people in these pictures are proud of their land and their work, and they love what they do. It’s as simple as that.

Towards the end of the final Hollister Estate Company branding, the cows were mooing loudly for their calves and busily mothering up. Everyone was eating steak, salad, and frijoles, and the sun was lowering towards the whitecaps of the Santa Barbara Channel. The old ranchers and cowboys in Levi jackets were talking about the good old days, and things were going along as they had for nearly a hundred and fifty years in the Las Cruces Canyon, when something happened that I will never forget.

A huge, surreal snow-white column silently rose directly up from the western horizon, and soared high into the atmosphere, disappearing into a tiny point hundreds of miles above the earth. It was an Atlas missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base, blasting through the thin air into the southern orbit. In those days, seeing a missile launch was likely to remind many cattle people of the bitter ongoing legal battle between the Air Force and the Sudden family. The military was then in the process of seizing through condemnation proceedings the Sudden’s 17,000 Rancho La Espada, which had been in their family since the 1860s. Located between Jalama Beach and Point Arguello, the huge ranch fronted the Pacific Ocean for nearly 15 miles and ran over 1,400 head of Hereford cows. It was one of the most respected cattle operations in the county.

The two hundred or so people at the barbeque fell silent, staring upwards at the huge, white column that was collapsing and spiraling into a strange, abstract design in the high altitude winds. Suddenly, someone stood up on a bench and booed loudly at the missile. We all burst out laughing. She then turned and raised her glass to all of us. We knew the meaning of that gesture. We knew things would never be the same.