The regal yet natural beauty is tracing back her ancestry for me—and it goes a long way back. Her ice blue eyes and flowing blond hair reflect her centuries-old Castilian pedigree, but the strong, suntanned arms and unmanicured hands are unmistakably those of a working rancher. She is soft-spoken and humble, yet confident and without artifice. Elizabeth Poett has need for neither pretense nor hubris. She is a direct descendant of José Antonio Julian De La Guerra; the Rancho San Julian on which she and her family raise organic, grass-fed beef was granted to De La Guerra 179 years ago by the Spanish crown.
A LEGACY IS BORN
De La Guerra, Elizabeth’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather, was long ago Comandante for the Royal Presidio in Santa Barbara, California. The Presidio was a military installation built by Spain back in 1782 to defend the surrounding areas.
De La Guerra was enlisted to raise cattle to provide meat for Presidio soldiers. Legend has it that De La Guerra aided Mexico in the junta against Spain, and in 1837, the Mexican governor who had jurisdiction over what was then Alta California, granted De La Guerra title to the ranchlands, then known as Rancho National. De La Guerra subsequently raised thirteen children with his spouse, Maria Antonia Juliana Carrillo. Hispanic and Anglo cultures merged when Thomas Bloodgood Dibblee arrived on the scene after the Gold Rush of 1849. California was being rapidly settled and stockmen from the East—including Dibblee—began bringing purebred Shorthorns and Devon cattle into the area. Dibblee would eventually marry Francisca De La Guerra, José Antonio Julian De La Guerra’s granddaughter.
Francisca’s father, Pablo (one of José Antonio Julian De La Guerra’s thirteen children) had become a statesman, lawyer and judge, managing the family’s properties, which at one time included 488, 329 acres of land and 10,000 head of cattle. Part of that acreage was Rancho San Julian. More marriages took place and the family tree continued branching out. Today, its direct descendants are the Russell, Donohoe, Hoyt, and Poett families, all of which share ownership of the San Julian.
According to Elizabeth, the ranch’s history of “practicing integrated systems of growing produce and raising livestock” took hold in the early 1930s when A. Dibblee Poett, Francisca’s grandson, became intrigued with biodynamic farming. A deep love and respect for the land—and keen interest for raising cattle in a healthy, humane and sustainable way—was handed down through the generations. In the late 1980s, James Poett, Elizabeth’s father (and nephew of A. Dibblee Poett) produced the first organic beef in California, selling the carcasses to local butchers and meat markets who would cut and wrap it. Soon after, James Poett decided to focus on genetics and developing a cattle operation that would be established for beef. He brought in breeds well known for beef and doubled the herd. To this day, he is Ranch Manager and runs the cattle as head of the San Julian Cattle Operation.
Elizabeth’s storybook beginnings and life on the San Julian came about in the 1970s, when her father was a freelance writer in New York City. There, he met Marianne Partridge, who was Editor-In-Chief of the Village Voice. Partridge had formerly been Editor-In-Chief of Rolling Stone Magazine in San Francisco. (She has headed Santa Barbara’s Independent for the last 30 years.) Partridge’s father was a horse trainer.
Partridge and Poett became a couple. When Elizabeth was conceived, the decision was made to head west, back to the rolling grasslands of the San Julian. Elizabeth was born at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara and was taken straight to the ranch as a newborn, growing up on the historical land grant. As a young adult, Poett needed to stretch her wings beyond ranch life. Boarding school in Monterey during her high school years had been her only significant time away from home. Kenyon College in Ohio (she majored in Spanish History) were followed by a stint in New York working at MTV (News and Documentaries) and PBS. Elizabeth also waitressed her way through the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, before an offer came for writing scripts in Los Angeles, which she accepted. On the weekends, she began helping out with various operations on the San Julian, located just a couple of hours up the coast. from L.A. In 2006, during a branding she met cattle rancher Austin Campbell. He was roping. She was on ground crew. The rest will be recorded as part of the lore of the Rancho San Julian. Now married, their sons Jack, aged six, and Hank, aged two, are the eighth generation to call the ranch home.
Elizabeth began to work full time on the San Julian, dedicating herself to the cattle operation during 2006 and 2007. With her father’s research and expertise behind her—and her own progressive perspective on environmental stewardship and animal husbandry—she launched the Rancho San Julian Beef Company.
Today San Julian Beef is 100% grass-fed. The cattle live off the land, grazing on native grasses and on dry-farmed (watered only from rain) oat hay grown on the ranch. San Julian cattle are never given any antibiotics, hormones, corn or soy. Poett, who has a mother herd of 500 cows, each producing a calf a year, knows the history of each of her animals. All are traceable. Calves are born in September, October and November. The heifer calves (females) become replacement heifers, bringing in new genetics. The bull calves are castrated at 6-7 months of age, and become steers and part of the beef business operation. Poett purchases the steers from her father. Three to four carefully selected, registered Angus bulls are brought in to breed with the heifers each year when the time is right. Along with genetic information, ultrasounds are employed to assess the marbling in the rib eyes of potential bulls. Steers are harvested from 24 to 30 months of age in the first USDA-approved Mobile Harvest Unit.
Poett was instrumental in facilitating the MHU for the California’s Central Coast. There is no need to truck the animals six to seven hours to a slaughterhouse, an exhausting and stressful journey for both rancher and animals. The MHU and process of leading the cattle up to it in a circular route in an area they are familiar with are humanely designed to allow the steers the most peaceful last environment possible. The MHU and this type of corral were inspired by the work of Temple Grandin, the renowned Professor of Livestock Behavior & Welfare. The intention is for the steers to be as calm and content as possible after living out a natural and idyllic existence on the oak-studded hills and canyons of the historic rancho.
Poett’s initial motivation for establishing the beef business came from her desire to know first hand about the quality of the food she fed her family, and where it originated.
The result is not only a well respected business, but beef that is as tender as butter; one can almost taste the wild grasses the cattle feed upon.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Elizabeth, Austin, and their children, the young Campbell family, live in Poett’s great grandmother’s former home on the Rancho San Julian. Mercédes de la Guerra had the house moved there from Santa Barbara in 1908. It is a home with a quiet and stately presence—and a patina that comes only with the passing of centuries, its memory-laden walls once again enlivened by the laughter of small children. An old high chair sits in the corner of a kitchen that has witnessed the lives of many generations. It is a perfect sanctuary for the couple after a day checking cows, fixing fences and tending to their two young sons—or cooking a meal for fifty during a branding operation.
When Poett is not busy ranching, she’s dreaming up a cookbook that will share the lifestyle, traditions and recipes enjoyed over the centuries on the Rancho San Julian.