Prior to the drought that kicked off nearly a decade ago, Elizabeth Poett was building a beef empire. Every week, often with her two tiny kids in tow, she was selling Rancho San Julian meats — raised by her father, Jim Poett; and her husband, Austin Campbell — at three farmers’ markets in Santa Barbara as well as the big one in Santa Monica while supplying butcher shops across Los Angeles.
“Things were going really well,” said Poett, the seventh generation of the famed De la Guerra family to call the 14,000-acre ranch between Gaviota and Lompoc home. “I was busy.”
But then, after four years of steadily growing her business, it stopped raining. “We really had to focus on our mother cows, which are born and raised and live on the ranch their entire lives — those are our genetics,” explained Poett, who is the daughter of this newspaper’s editor-in-chief and co-owner, Marianne Partridge. “We couldn’t keep extra cattle on the ranch. There just wasn’t enough space for me to be raising more animals.” She kept selling in Santa Barbara but had to cut out the entire L.A. market.
Poett had alternatives up her sleeve, realizing that customers wanted to learn about life on the ranch, from how everything was grown to how it was prepared. “People who go to the farmers’ market are some of the most knowledgeable people about food,” she said, but even they needed more. “Everybody at the market was always wanting to come and see the ranch. People were yearning for a connection.”
Instead of just delivering the ranch to others, she started inviting people up to Rancho San Julian for hands-on workshops and home-cooked meals. In 2017, Poett launched a company called The Ranch Table, building a website, recipe collection, and social media following to amplify the in-person gatherings.
“My life has always been hosting,” said Poett. “Melding these worlds together was my dream. It is so inspiring to watch other people click, because we’ve all clicked at different times of our lives about food. This is what I want to share.”
The pandemic threw a temporary hitch in those experiences but also presented Poett with a new way to inspire those clicks: Starting this Friday, August 6, Poett and her family are the stars of Ranch to Table, a new six-episode television series produced by the Magnolia Network for the Discovery+ streaming service.
“It’s been a whirlwind project that has been in the works for a really long time,” said Poett, explaining that, truth be told, the show was envisioned before the pandemic ever began. “I am still in shock that it’s going forward.”
The pilot episode, which has been on the network for a couple months now, features her telling the story of her family, of how she met Austin at a branding, and of what daily life is like, all while teaching us in a casual manner how to make Santa Maria–style tri-tip, fire-roasted salsa, and a blackberry-apple galette.
“I am not a professional chef; I didn’t go to culinary school,” said Poett of how she became the star of what’s technically a cooking show. “I am just a rancher who loves food, loves to cook, and loves talking to people who grow food.”
Magnolia is the lifestyle brand developed by Chip and Joanna Gaines, best-selling authors and former stars of the HGTV show Fixer Upper. “Yes, it’s a show about food, but it’s also a show about life on the ranch,” said Joanna in a promotional show about Ranch to Table. “It shows her as a mother, as a wife. It weaves in and out of her full story. It’s not just her at the island cooking three to four meals. It’s the intersection of food and the ranch and her family.”
For Chip, the show reminds him of visiting his granddad’s ranch every summer as a child. He explained, “When you think about a woman like her and a family like theirs, from generation to generation over all the years, the stories that she tells and the things that that land has been through over what now equates to centuries is really spectacular.”
That’s true. Jose De la Guerra took over the ranch back in 1837, and his descendants have been working it ever since. Jim Poett, Elizabeth’s father, grew up in Los Angeles, where his mother taught school, but would spend weekends up on the property and then attended nearby Midland School. He always wanted to live there, so when Marianne became pregnant with Elizabeth, they plotted a return to the ranch.
“He bought cows the day after I was born. He still has the sales slip,” said Poett of her dad’s initial investment. “My poor mother was still in the hospital.”
A few years later, Poett was “one of the first, if not the first certified organic beef producer in California,” recalled his daughter, whose childhood memories involve countless trips to butcher shops, including the old City Market in downtown Santa Barbara and Lazy Acres, which also bought Rancho San Julian beef way back when. But he eventually wanted to focus more on growing the herd and tightening their genetics, so he got out of the finished beef business.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, left California for college and then worked in New York City and Los Angeles. “I went out and did things in the world, which was really important for me,” she said. “Then, slowly but surely, I started coming back here more and more.”
When she did return, she wanted to showcase the ranch’s meat again and use the entire animal as much as possible. (I once bought a cow heart from her at the market — different story for another time.) “I always thought our final product was amazing, and that’s what we were always focusing on when we were thinking about our cows,” she said. “I wanted to be able to provide beef and cut out the middle man.”
It wasn’t, and still isn’t, easy. “It came with a million challenges,” she said of breaking into the markets in 2008. “Just getting the meat to the market was a lot. There’s just not infrastructure in California to really do small products like this.”
But she persevered and built the Rancho San Julian brand, which remains a hot commodity at the farmers’ market. Now, Poett can thank TV for spreading her family story, which she doesn’t see as particularly unique in the grand scheme of America.
“This is a real community and a lot of America are these small communities that are growing food,” she said of what she wants viewers to take from the series. “That was my hope: that people can see this and be inspired.”
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