Last Roundups


On a horse named Bullet, Jed Dillon gallops across a verdant ridgeline after a few dozen head of cattle.

He drives the cows down a hill and into a wide green meadow bordered with oaks, joining up with another 100 head of cattle that are being coaxed along by three other cowboys on horseback.

They fan out on their horses, driving the herd through a winding expanse of grassland dotted with scrub brush and oak trees, and toward a corral where 400 head of cattle are already kicking up dust.


It is a timeless scene branded into the American consciousness--cowboys working with cattle in the billowing dust. It’s also a scene that has played itself out in Ventura County for nearly 200 years, dating back to when the land was part of a Spanish land grant.

But for many ranchers this is the closing act on their way of life, as highways and homes push into the county and squeeze them out. Along with the rumble from the hooves of hundreds of head of cattle in the corral, one can hear the low hum from the Simi Valley Freeway as it cuts into Ventura County from Los Angeles.

The land, which is leased for cattle ranching, is prime real estate for developments of homes for people fleeing the urban sprawl of the San Fernando Valley.

The ranchers who work the property, and those who work much of the rest of the ranching lands in Ventura County, say they occupy the last bridge the county has to its rural past.

The cowboys here know it’s not a matter of if the land they ranch on is developed, but when.

“Maybe we have 10 more years,” says Pete Mokler, a rancher and architect who leases 4,000 acres of grazing land. “We like it here, but whether we stay or not is not our decision. Look at how pretty it is, and you can see why somebody would want to build homes here.”


The land Mokler leases--north of California 118, east of the Simi Valley city limits--is owned by the Unocal corporation, which has plans to develop the property in the coming decades.

For Mokler’s neighbor, rancher John Harvey, the inevitable will probably come much sooner.

Harvey leases from the Messenger Investment Co. of Irvine, which has already laid out detailed plans to build on the rolling scrub and oak-covered grassland behind Moorpark College.

When Harvey rides through the property, he can point out where the 18-hole championship golf course will be laid out and where the 3,221 planned homes will be built.

He might not know whether the construction will start in a year, two years, or five years. But he knows it’s coming.

“I’d like to stay here as long as I can,” Harvey said one sunny afternoon, with his dogs Lass and Apache next to him in the thigh-high grass. “But when they decide to build, I’ll be on my way. [Ranchers] are being pushed out all over the place, eventually we’ll just have to get out of the county.”


Indeed ranchers have been surrendering to development for years in Ventura County.

Most of the old-time ranching families sold off their property during the last two decades, cashing in instead of struggling to get by in the face of urbanization, rising land values and other costs, Harvey said.


The amount of land used for grazing cattle has dropped at least 50% the last 20 years, to about 150,000 to 200,000 acres, according to county figures.

The Strathearn family, which once owned about 12,000 acres, including the land now leased by Harvey and Mokler, sold its property to investors in the early 1970s, Bruce Strathearn said.

“We sold for a lot of reasons, but mostly because you can’t afford to own a ranch in Ventura County,” said Strathearn, sitting in his Simi Valley office where he runs the Strathearn family foundation, established with the profits from the sale of the family ranch.

The money from the sale also helped Strathearn, president of the Simi Valley Bank, and his brothers set up their own investments.

The enormous profit from selling land has proved to be much more attractive for many ranchers than dealing with property taxes, liability insurance, water costs, and the ups and downs of the beef market, Strathearn says.

“Sometimes I just have to scratch my head and ask myself why these guys keep at it,” he said.


On top of all those costs are the hassles of ranching so close to urban areas, Strathearn said. Trespassing is a daily nuisance for some ranchers, as well as vandalism and theft of everything from cows to irrigation pipes.

“It can be like beating your head against the wall,” Strathearn said. “I guess they do it because they love the lifestyle.”

But the lifestyle--working the land, riding horses and tending to cattle every day under the sun--has not been enough to keep many ranchers at it.

Over the years, Strathearn has seen several neighboring ranches converted to housing tracts.

Dewey Runkle’s 2,888-acre ranch was converted into the Bridle Path development. The Wood family’s ranch on the southwest side of Simi Valley was developed into a community with 4,200 homes, a golf course and a small shopping center.

Though he is sometimes nostalgic for his old ranching days, Strathearn says he welcomes development and believes that whoever owns the property should have a right to build on it.


Referring to the land Harvey ranches, now owned by the Messenger Investment Co., he said, “Make sure you let it be known that I think it’s a good project, and that they have spent more than they should have to develop land they already own.”

Daily Routine

Late one afternoon, John Harvey ambled through the high grass with his two champion border collies to check a leaky water trough near where about a dozen head of cattle were grazing.

It was part of a long routine--a daily grind that keeps him working on the empty and rugged rolling hills he leases to raise his cattle.

Driving his truck or riding his horse Osa, Harvey is on the range every day fixing fences, looking over his water tanks, or just checking on his cows.

“I’m lucky really to get to do this,” said the lifelong Ventura County cowboy.

Not everyone agrees with him. With ranchers selling out or moving out to make room for development, there are now only about 110 members of the local ranching association.

And of those, perhaps as few as six--including Harvey--make a living solely off ranching, said Richard Atmore, president of the local Cattlemen’s Assn.


On average, Ventura County ranchers now have small herds of about 50 cattle, Atmore said.

“And you can’t make a living on that size herd,” he said.

Since the mid-1970s, the number of cattle in the county has also declined from about 30,000 to 40,000 head to an estimated 6,000 to 8,000.

It takes more than 20 acres to sustain one cow. In an average year, a rancher might make $25 per head of cattle, so the return per acre is low, Atmore said.

If you count sheep and hog farms, ranching brought about $3.2 million into the county in 1994, according to the latest statistics from the agricultural commissioner’s office. That’s a drop in the bucket of the $848 million that agriculture brought to Ventura County that year.

Atmore estimated between 80% and 90% of local ranchers do not own their own land and often lease property from investors, oil companies or some other large landowner.

Because returns on their investments are so low, ranchers are also unable to pay very much to lease the property, Atmore said.

“It’s barely enough to pay the interest on [the landowners’] property taxes,” said rancher Harvey.


But in many cases, the landowners are not looking for money, but for someone to watch over acres of vacant land.

“We’re like 24-hour security,” Harveysaid. Landowners have to worry about trespassers, too, and lawsuits if trespassers injure themselves and decide to sue, he said.

On Harvey’s 4,000-acre ranch behind Moorpark College and Moorpark’s Campus Park neighborhood, he has had a lot of problems with people crossing his fence to go mountain biking, hiking or jogging on the ranch.

“I’m out here every day, checking my cattle, the springs and the fences,” he said. “If I see someone on the property I’ll escort them off.”

He said he and his mother, Billie Mae Harvey, are among the lucky few ranchers in Ventura County who are able to make a living. With about 1,000 cattle split between the land they lease from Messenger and another lease they have near Somis, they are able to eke out a decent income, Harvey said.

“It’s a living, and I can work outdoors,” he said. “I get to ride my horse, work my dogs and work with cattle . . . that’s what I enjoy doing.”


Those who can’t make it work just by ranching find ways to supplement their earnings.

Don and Debbie Early, who lease the 3,100-acre Big Sky Ranch that borders the Mokler and Harvey leases, have worked out an arrangement setting up locations for the film industry to shoot.

“We keep our grass real tall, and that’s why they like to film here,” said Debbie Early, who works almost full time setting up the shoots.

Mokler works as an architect and consultant part time in Los Angeles, but he and his wife and three young children live in a trailer set down in a desolate valley on their leased land.

“I’m close to the city, and I can quickly head down there if I have a job, but when I come home, I may as well be in Montana,” he said.

But Mokler realizes that his time on the ranch will be limited.

“Really we’re very lucky,” Mokler said. “We’ll probably be the last ones to have the chance to ranch here.”