as told to LIZ BELL YOUNG
photography by MAGNOLIA DISCOVERY VENTURES, LLC.
© 2021. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Off the central coast of California, Elizabeth Poett is part of the seventh generation to run her family’s cattle ranch—one of the oldest in the state. Each day at Rancho San Julian is a call to nourishment: from raising boys and animals to hosting dinners and managing harvests.
I watched him from the kitchen window. He was far off in the hills, soaring a toy plane through the air while our dogs ran and jumped at his heels. All cowboy boots and the bright energy of a 10-year-old who can run so wild and free. Somewhere, his younger brother was helping my husband feed hay to the cattle. My parents, a half mile down the ranch road, were likely drinking coffee or working in the garden. And as I whisked batter for a cake we’d share with neighbors that night, I stopped for a minute and looked down at my feet.
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought of it, but each time it felt almost surreal. I was standing on the same kitchen floor that my grandfather had learned to walk on. The same floor my great-grandmother hauled firewood across to the stone hearth. And the same floor our own boys had wobbled from chair to chair on as they took their first steps, just as their grandfather had. The abundance of memory and beauty stilled me. It was exactly where I wanted to be.
I had left when I graduated high school; I wanted the busy world, a college, a city. But even while I was out and away, I always knew I’d come back to the family ranch. So when I did return, it felt just as it should. The acres of California hillsides. The stone house, outlying barns, and farming fields. The steers, heifers, calves, and the stretches of pasture and fence line that nearly reached the Pacific Ocean. A place that had been so carefully tended and sustained by the generations of family who lived here before us, passed to the next generation and the next and the next. Austin, who grew up on a ranch down the road from ours, stepped right in alongside me—a man of few words but great love and capacity, who also knew this lifestyle like the back of his hands.
We married, had two sons, and set off on this big path of caring for what had been handed down. Ranch life is not an easy life. It doesn’t come quick. We work from sunup to sundown, and the to-do list never runs dry. There’s always something to mend or fix or harvest: trails to clear so the cattle can graze freely, chickens and sheep to feed and watch over, water tanks to monitor, spring boxes to clean, rain to pray for, puppies and pigs and sweet boys to raise. Austin and I stand together in the mornings while we pull on boots and drink coffee, going over what we’ll do that day. But as much as we plan, it always changes. The weather shifts, and rain holds off, and animals are simply on their own time— not ours. And this variety and spontaneity, I love. Each day shifts to something new, something unpredicted. So Austin and I head out to work while the boys bike to school, and in the evening, we gather back together around the dinner table. Because as much as we move, I always want us to stop. To have a good meal together, look into each other’s eyes, talk about the day. I imagine my ancestors did the same thing.
It’s gotten complicated in the world with so many parts and pieces… so much technology and content overload. But I’m old-school and like things simple. I want to hold an actual newspaper, grind spices with a mortar and pestle, pull tomatoes off the vine. I want to talk face-to-face with others as much as possible and host big dinners at long tables with all our mismatched ceramics and weddingday cutlery, heaping seconds on everyone’s plates. When we’re finished eating, I tell everyone to just pile the plates at the sink, ignore them, and return to the table. Because this is the best part: gathered and nourished as the night softens and conversation flows. The simple things. Someone asked me once if I think ranch life is romanticized. I said if it is, I’m thankful, because I hope people see how much work and passion it takes to get food to a table, then how much pride it stirs when you finally get it there. And I hope more and more children want to continue their family’s farming and ranching legacies—or start one of their own. Cattle ranch or backyard, it’s so valuable to get your hands dirty. To raise something. Feed someone. To share what’s been shared with you.
This story was adapted for digital from the spring issue of Magnolia Journal.