San Simeon, San Luis Obispo County — Driving slowly along a dirt road at Hearst Ranch in San Simeon, Steve Hearst suddenly stops his SUV, hops out and walks 100 yards to pick up a fallen Mylar balloon. It is the only trace of trash on the grassland that stretches over much of the ranch’s 82,000 acres, which is the main source of food for its cattle.
“In a normal year you would be 18 inches deep in feed,” he said, pointing to grasses that reach only about ankle-high, thanks to the drought.
We are prowling for wildlife, for glimpses of escaped Sambar deer and Roosevelt elk that Hearst’s great-grandfather, William Randolph, first brought in for the zoo he constructed next to his idiosyncratic Hearst Castle, which floats on a hilltop above the ranch. The zebras that graze along Highway 1 near the castle’s visitor center are also remnants of that era.
But Steve Hearst is more concerned with the ranch’s rent-paying ruminants, the 900-plus head of Black Angus cattle that divide their time between here and at the 73,000-acre Jack Ranch, east of Paso Robles, before being slaughtered and sold as grass-fed beef at Whole Foods. He has managed the two ranches, which are owned by Hearst Corp. (which also owns The Chronicle), since 1998.
“I’ve been fortunate to work and play here my whole life,” he says.
Hearst has taken a conservator’s role with Hearst Ranch, first by orchestrating a historic conservation easement between the state of California and two environmental agencies in 2005 that ensured it will stay agricultural land in perpetuity. Converting the ranch’s cattle operation to a grass-fed beef company is another part of that approach.
There have been cattle here since the days it was called Rancho Piedra Blanca. When George Hearst, William Randolph’s father, purchased the land in 1865, there were 17 dairies on the property. But up until 2005 the animals were sold at auction and finished elsewhere on grain.
Hearst wanted to sell the meat directly, partly to take better advantage of the Hearst Ranch brand, and eventually forged a relationship with Whole Foods to sell the beef at its Southern California locations on a seasonal basis. The ranch claims to be the biggest single-source supplier of grass-fed beef in the United States.
An agricultural director manages the operation, overseeing the ranch manager, three cowboys and three other ranch hands.
On the day of our visit, the cowboys were training the cows through a corral to get checked for pregnancy; the ones that weren’t would be sold. The hope is to continue to expand the herd by about 100 head per year, though the drought is deterring that, partly because the cost of supplemental feed – a mix of grainless seeds and almond hulls approved by theUSDA to maintain the grass-fed beef label – is so high.
Hearst says the ranch is monitored twice a year by California Rangeland Trust to ensure it’s being operated according to its easement agreement. Though the agreement limits development on the ranch, it was controversial – the Sierra Club and the California Coastal Commission thought the state was giving Hearst Corp. too large of a settlement, valued at $95 million, including tax breaks.
Hearst counters that the settlement is less than the actual value of the land, were they to sell it. He also saw it as the end of 30 to 40 years of controversy over what would happen to such a large, privately owned part of the coast.
Like William Randolph Hearst – WR in family parlance – and other relatives, Hearst is as comfortable in a newsroom as on a horse.
He worked in newspapers for several decades and lives in Menlo Park, but during high school, he and his brother helped his father, the late George Hearst Jr., run his own ranch in Ventura. His father owned a rodeo at one point and the two brothers worked as pickup men – the cowboys who retrieve the fallen bronco riders and horses.
These days, he’s at Hearst Ranch several times a month, whether overseeing the beef operation or planning a philanthropic event, such as the upcoming Best Buddies Challenge, a bike ride from Carmel to San Simeon on Sept. 6. The ranch will host post-race activities, including a concert and party; top donors get to go to an evening party at the outdoor pool at Hearst Castle. Since 2000, charity events at the ranch have raised $40 million for various causes.
Hearst vacationed here frequently and, like other WR descendants, stays at one of the historic buildings designed by Hearst Castle architect Julia Morgan, such as the original Mission-style cowboy dormitory, which has been converted to family guest quarters. There are also Julia Morgan houses on coastal property across Highway 1 at the waterfront village of San Simeon. That’s also the location of the tasting room for Hearst Ranch Winery, another business venture launched by Hearst along with local winemaker Jim Saunders.
Hearst also commissioned a 2013 book, “Hearst Ranch: Family, Land, and Legacy,” written by Hearst Castle historian Victoria Kastner, to celebrate the family’s history on the coast.
“It is a remarkable piece of property,” he says. “And the care that it gets from past and present – and I guarantee future – management will allow the resources to flourish.”
Hearst Ranch grass-fed beef is available at the Hearst Castle visitor center, 750 Hearst Castle Road, San Simeon; and the Hearst Ranch Winery tasting room at Sebastian’s General Store, which serves the beef in its cafe, 442 SLO-San Simeon Road, San Simeon. It is also available seasonally at Southern California Whole Foods stores. For more information, go to www.hearstranch.com.