SAN SIMEON, Calif. — When George Hearst — William Randolph Hearst’s father — purchased a ranch in 1865 it was beautiful, rugged and iconic.
One hundred years later, the purchase of the nearby Jack Ranch nearly doubled the size of the operation to 156,000 acres.
“The two properties, which are about an hour apart, complement each other well,” said Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations for the Hearst Corp. “The Jack Ranch is perhaps less well-known and scenic, but an excellent cattle ranch in a decent year with strong feed, good groundwater and about 2,000 acres of farm ground, which we use to produce hay and for permanent pasture.”
Higgins also oversees the original 83,000-acre Hearst Ranch at San Simeon surrounding Hearst Castle. It and the 73,000-acre Jack Ranch are in San Luis Obispo County.
He also served four years as executive vice president of the California Cattlemen’s Association and as state director of USDA Rural Development.
In addition to 1,500 mother cows on each property, the ranches raise 1,200 head of grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free cattle annually.
Each animal spends its entire life on the ranches and is raised on grass to a finished weight of 1,300 pounds. The primary customer is Whole Foods Market, with over 40 Southern California locations.
Hearst is the largest agricultural landowner on the Central Coast. There are over 50 historic residences and structures and over 300 miles of road on the San Simeon property.
“Like most cow-calf operations, we’re mostly Angus,” Higgins said. “Our ranch managers — Keith Pascoe and Dann Russell — have a lot of discretion to select and buy animals which will work well for the different climates and constraints of the two ranches, and are going to produce excellent grass-fed beef.”
The lack of rainfall is a major concern. He said during his 10 years with Hearst, the ranches have received the historic average rainfall in San Simeon only once and at the Jack Ranch just twice.
Producing grass-fed beef when you’re constantly short on grass is a major challenge, regardless of breed, he said, adding that day-to-day operations would be a lot easier if there was a decent rain year.
Higgins said there are larger challenges facing all of California’s livestock ranchers.
Ranching in California has been pretty marginal economically for the last 30 years at least, and things have really gotten bleak in the last two years. It’s hard to paint any kind of economically viable picture with $7 diesel, $400 hay, and everything from fencing materials to equipment to groceries up 30% at least, he said.
Higgins said California is also “coping with the loss of a lot of our young families to other states — constraining labor in many areas.”
The many regulations imposed by local, state, and federal governments are ever present, he said.
This organization, fortunately, has the ability to weather these storms but a lot of smaller producers do not, he said.
In 2005, the Hearst Ranch was forever protected from commercial development with a perpetual conservation easement, held by the California Rangeland Trust. Thirteen miles of coastline were also donated to the public and are managed by California State Parks.
Thanks to this agreement — one of the largest conservation easements in U.S. history — this property will forever remain a working cattle ranch and one of the most remarkable and diverse assemblages of native plant and animal species in the country, he said.
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