Ranching is vital to Earl and Rhonda Graham, and they’ve built a life surrounded by agriculture along California’s Desert in Apple Valley with their three daughters.
Both Earl and Rhonda grew up in California in agricultural families. Earl is from Victorville, on the edge of the Mojave Desert in Southern California and is a fourth-generation rancher. His parents bought and sold livestock, and after going through the FFA and a Farm Service Agency program in high school, Earl started his first business at age 18: a cattle artificial insemination company.
After high school, Earl, went to auctioneer college in Billings, Montana, and diversifying his entrepreneurial efforts, began his auctioneer career at 18, as well as taking up buying and selling livestock, like his parents.
Within a five-year span, Earl went to horseshoeing school, and added farrier to his skill set. This multi-pronged approach to business gave Earl several streams of income within the agricultural and horse industry.
“A lot of different businesses were opportunities that came along,” Earl said. “If you’re an auctioneer and you’re trying to break into the industry, you better have something to pay the bills while you’re getting into it. It’s a unique industry.”
Rhonda grew up on a ranch in a remote part of California, in the mountains of Big Bear just north of the high desert, and she credits her father Chuck Rogers with passing on to her a love of horses and the Western lifestyle.
“My dad was the president of the horse club up there, and we ran the ropins out at the rodeo arena during the summers,” Rhonda said.
Rhonda met Earl the summer of 1973, when she was 19 and he was 20, and the couple married that December. And for almost 50 years, Earl and Rhonda have ranched and raised cattle in in the high desert, in Apple Valley.
In 1976, the couple purchased a central coast ranch in Parkfield, California, and started running cattle on it.
Ever the agricultural entrepreneur, Earl, along with Rhonda, was always open to opportunities for business. Building on rapport with cattle companies, Earl purchases hay from around the state and sells it to local ranchers—a venture the couple has continued for 40 years.
“Our hay here used to be grown all over different places in California, but now it’s pretty much grown in just a few different valleys of California,” Earl said.
The Grahams love horses, and as an offshoot of being an auctioneer, Earl used to buy and sell many horses.
“That started because we both understood, loved, enjoyed and rode horses a lot,” Earl said.
After the couple developed a reputation for keeping many horses, contractors from the movie industry would contact them when they needed extra animals, or horses of a particular color or breed, and the couple would rent them for use in films.
California is a popular place for trail rides, one of the most famous is a group of men called the Rancho Vistares. This group rented horses from the Grahams for their annual trail ride for years. The couple furnished horses to more than 40 different events each year, as well as summer, YMCA, Boy & Girl Scout camps.
“At one time, we used to keep about 150 horses working all the time,” Earl said.
During this same time, the Grahams owned a small sale barn in Southern California, and then added a sale yard in Chino, California. The family ran a horse sale for 25 years, alongside cattle sales, farm sales and ranch sales. For 20 years, they also operated a ranch called Los Flores Ranch, an operation with roots tracing to the 1700s. The land on which the ranch was located was found to be habitat for an endangered species, and a court ruling has excluded cattle from the property for now.
The Grahams have three daughters: Lorinda, Johan, and Kristi, and the women grew up surrounded by the Western lifestyle just like their parents. Lorinda is a serial Western brand entrepreneur in Texas with her husband Joel and their two daughters Charley and Jaylee. In 2019, Earl and Rhonda sold their auction sales company to Johan and her husband Jeff, who does real estate and ranch sales along with his their 3 sons. Kristi is an attorney for the Department of Justice in Poway with her husband and two sons Graham and O’Ryan.
Today, the Grahams still have the hay business and a Black Angus cattle business—two ventures that keep them busy, even into their 70s. Rhonda works side-by-side with Earl, tackling whatever tasks come up, and running the office, riding horses whenever she can.
“We hope we never have to retire, and we hope we get to continue to do the cattle business,” Earl said.
Originally raising grass-fed beef from conception to consumption on the family’s two ranches, because of the loss of use of Los Flores ranch, the family no longer has a cow-calf operation. But they purchase stockers and grass feed them before selling them. The company is now called Three Sisters, after the Graham’s three daughters, who all take part in the business in various facets. The company raises farm-to-table beef, ready to go to your freezer.
Alongside their many business ventures, Earl and Rhonda Graham have always been involved in philanthropy.
“Rhonda and I have always felt that the Good Lord blessed us with three very beautiful and talented daughters,” Earl said. “We didn’t have an extra burden in life, so it gave us some time to do things, and Rhonda and I looked at our life and thought it was nothing we’ve done that has put us in this position. For some reason we were put here, and God probable means for us to give back somewhere, somehow.”
For this reason, around 30 years ago the couple started a non-profit called Wild Horsemen of America (WHOA) to raise money for various causes, from helping widows and children, to the local sheriff department. The couple also opened their ranch and other properties for trail riding and cattle drives, as part of fundraising efforts for the organization, we well as to help families who lost a loved one killed in the line of duty.
“If an officer died in the line of duty, their name gets put on two walls—one is in Sacramento, and one is a national wall in Washington, D.C.,” Earl said. “The family may not have enough money to go see their family members name put on the wall, which would be a terrible thing. So, we started raising money for the spouse and the children to get there to see it happen.”
The Grahams also fundraise to cover fees for the children of fallen officers to be able to go to a special camp, without concern for expenses.
In 2008, the couple received an Arrowhead Award from San Bernadino County for their work with their non-profit, an honor only bestowed on a little more than a dozen recipients over the years. Rhonda was the first woman to receive the award, and they were the first couple. Valuing their community deeply, the award is extremely meaningful for Rhonda and Earl.
“That is the highest honor you can receive in our county,” Earl said.
Earl has been a member of the San Bernadino County Farm Bureau Board of Directors for eight years, and as part of this non-profit advocates for agriculture in the county.
“San Bernadino County is a unique county—at one time, there more dairy cattle in San Bernadino than in the whole state of Wisconsin,” Earl said. “When I grew up here, there were far more cattle than there were people. And we have the largest national preserve anywhere in the lower 48 state park reserves. Today it’s called the Mojave Preserve, and it used to be home to about 20,000 mama cows, but all those ranchers moved out for the preserve. And now out county is about 80% owned by the federal government.”
Earl is passionate about issues that affect his fellow ranchers and enjoys sitting on the board where he feels he can make a difference.
Celebrating their 49th anniversary in 2022, Earl and Rhonda enjoy riding and raising their performance-bred and -trained, now ranch, Quarter Horses and living their lives together.
“Rhonda has always been the strong machine of our partnership,” Earl said. “She’s the real power that be. And she’s the one that has motivated her daughters. She’s the one that’s always motivated me.”
Earl says Rhonda is by nature a quiet person with a great sense of humor, but she’s imparted her strength of character in each of their daughters, of whom they are immensely proud.
“We had the pleasure of raising three beautiful daughters, and we love being ranchers, and we enjoy our customers,” Earl said. “We’ve had a wonderful life, and we still have—I believe—many more years, and a lot more adventures and fun to have. We’re looking forward to what’s still around the corner coming at us.”
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