El Chorro Ranch

October 19, 2018 by Keely Brazil

Not all ranchers fit the John Wayne stereotype. Some look like Katie Isaacson Hames.

A young blue-eyed mother making a life on the Gaviota coast, Katie has a degree in biology with a minor in creative writing. She worked at a local school for eight years and met her husband Will at a farmer’s market. She is also a third-generation rancher.

Katie and her family maintain a diverse operation and exercise the creativity necessary to keep a ranch

“We don’t necessarily look like ranchers,” Katie laughs. “I drive a Subaru viable in the 21st century Outback when I’m not driving the flatbed.”

When her parents, Bob and Sally Isaacson, brought Katie home from the hospital, it was to El Chorro Ranch. Now she raises her two children in the same house. Five-year-old Helen and two-year-old Bobby participate in daily ranch work—gathering eggs, feeding the horses, checking water valves, weeding the garden, fixing fences. They’re carrying on the family tradition of ranching on El Chorro that Katie’s great-grandfather started when he bought the former Spanish land grant property in 1939.

Growing up, Katie saw her father and his brothers face tough decisions about what to do with the historic ranch. Bob Isaacson was an English professor. His former students still tell Katie about the for the people who are growing the food grows.” enduring impact he had on their lives. He was also a passionate writer and historian, documenting early ranch life on the California coast. But Bob Isaacson believed his conservation easement with the California Rangeland Trust was the great contribution of his life.

“The day after they signed, I went to the ranch,” Katie remembers. “Dad was kind of wandering around, saying, ‘I finally did something bigger than myself.’”

After her father passed away, Katie took over management of El Chorro in partnership with her uncles, Deming and Bill. She discovered that the conservation easement was not only a wise stewardship choice; it also helped the bottom line.

“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.”

Katie and Will exercise the kind of creativity necessary to keep a ranch viable in the 21st century. In addition to their cow-calf operation, Katie and Will have worked with several conservation stewardship grants, operated a pumpkin patch with neighbors, and partnered with local families to teach classes and host events on nearby ranches. These workshops allow Katie to share the ranch experience with others. Over time, she’s noticed an exciting tide of change.

“I think as our society’s respect for food grows, their respect for the people who are growing the 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.”

She believes the local food movement is a result of Americans asking questions about where their food comes from. What was the animal’s life like? What was it fed? If a food product is labeled “organic” but it was grown in Chile, what was the environmental impact of shipping it to the United States? These questions, along with emerging research about range science and soil health, help shift antiquated notions about ranchers and farmers to a more three- dimensional perspective.

“I remember in college majoring in biology, friends would ask if I was going to be an environmentalist,” Katie says. “I thought that was funny. I think ranchers and farmers are
the biggest environmentalists.”