Don’t let the red bandana, dirty jeans, thigh-high boots, leather gloves and hat fool you; one thing that Glenn Elzinga definitely is not is a cowboy.
Sure he lives on a ranch, raises cattle for a living and rides horses almost every day, but he compares his work to that of an artisan, working with animals, land and water.
“I feel called to be an agent of change for the land,” he said. “I’ve always loved wild places, remote landscapes, but I never would have dreamed that God would have stuck us here. It’s an awesome place.”
This place is 1,700 acres in central Idaho in the Pahsimeroi Valley. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides, Alderspring Ranch, alongside the Pahsimeroi River, is where Glenn ex’83, his wife, Caryl DeVries Elzinga ’83, and their seven daughters live and work.
The Elzingas only recently moved to the Pahsimeroi Valley from the nearby Lemhi Valley, where they owned a much smaller ranch. They were selected as the purchasers of this land by the Nature Conservancy — a leading international, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the diversity of life on earth — because of their environmentally friendly ranching efforts.
Straddling the Pahsimeroi River, the ranch is home to prong-horned antelope, jack rabbits, coyotes and several varieties of rare plants. The river is a primary spawning site for the threatened chinook salmon.
It is also home to the Elzingas’ 200 head of cattle and a handful of goats and horses.
Historically, environmentalists and ranchers have not seen eye-to-eye. The Elzingas, though, are working toward being an educational model for others.
Relative newcomers to the field, the Elzingas first purchased a ranch in 1992.
Already living in eastern Idaho, the couple was working for the Bureau of Land Management; Glenn in the forestry division and Caryl as a botanist.
“I had a great job, but I was starting to travel more and more with the agency,” said Glenn. “Then we started having kids, and I wanted to do something we could all do together. When we bought the ranch, I thought, ‘This is a crazy thing.’”
Thus the Elzingas got their start on 145 acres with seven cows.
“At the time I felt like it was what God was leading me to do,” said Glenn. “I still believe that. I have no idea why God would want me to be a rancher, but I believe he does.”
Watching Elzinga saddle a horse, move wheel lines, mend a fence, reposition dams and check pastures makes it seem as if he’s done it all his life. “These dams [which are used to flood irrigate portions of the arid land] are something I had to work at getting right,” he said, while pulling up a piece of plastic tarp attached to a small pole and weighted with rocks. “Old-timers can practically get water to run uphill.”
The son of a truck driver from Wyckoff, N.J., Glenn has no background in ranching. Caryl grew up on a farm in Demotte, Ind. “I always envisioned myself as a university professor somewhere, though,” said Caryl, who has a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin. “I never pictured myself as a cattle rancher in Idaho.”
Their backgrounds in forestry and plant ecology and their unwavering belief in environmental stewardship are what make them ideal role models for the next generation of ranchers, though.
“Typical ranchers do things the way they’ve always been done,” said Caryl. “Glenn and I didn’t know anything, so we just tried things.”“There’s a sense of ‘rightness’ about it. Our original mandate is to be good stewards of what God has created here. A lot of us have forgotten or ignored that." — Glenn Elzinga
Their vision is to produce healthy beef while maintaining the wildlife and botanical diversity on their small piece of God’s earth.
“There’s a sense of ‘rightness’ about it,” said Glenn. “Our original mandate is to be good stewards of what God has created here. A lot of us have forgotten or ignored that.”
So the Elzingas use no pesticides or fertilizer on their land. They are diligent about protecting the land, and they exercise care not to overgraze pastures.
But their stewardship goes beyond the land and the wildlife to their cattle, which are grass fed and do not receive any antibiotics or growth hormones.
“Grass-fed beef is rare,” explained Glenn. “Organic, grass-fed beef is even more rare.”
Alderspring Ranch cattle, which are certified organic, spend their days grazing in the pastures and roaming the ranges. Eventually, the cattle are sent to an individual meat processor in a very low-stress environment. They are not sent to a feedlot or large meat production facility, which is the usual and more economical option.
“Some ranchers out here think we’re crazy; they’re just cows,” said Glenn. “I think they’re missing the whole aspect of animal husbandry. Ranching is a lot more intimate thing than just growing a critter and killing it. God loved these critters enough to create them all and give them a name. Why ask us to give them a name if he didn’t care about them?”
Glenn believes that running cattle in a low-stress environment also produces better meat. No electric cattle prods are allowed on the ranch. “You don’t have to cowboy them. Just call them and they’ll come.”
And they do. One early summer afternoon Glenn simply called out, “Hey guys, let’s get moving,” and the cattle calmly followed him to a new pasture.
The Elzingas believe their method of ranching produces higher-quality, healthier meat in a better environment for the animals. The issue remains, however, whether or not people are willing to pay for it.
The Elzingas’ current market is regional stores with customers who are concerned about health issues, are interested in buying more flavorful beef and are willing to pay for it.
“If consumers would only get educated about food, price would be less of an issue,” said Glenn.
“If Americans were to discover that food is the stuff of life, they would also find that the epidemic of health problems in this country is related to what we eat and don’t eat,” added Caryl.
The Elzingas’ cupboards are devoid of the usual bags of chips and boxes of cookies; snacks for the Elzinga children are organic apples and oranges. A recent dinner on the ranch consisted of brown rice, vegetables, Alderspring ground beef and home-canned peaches. Breakfasts are usually farm-fresh eggs, yogurt with home-canned cherries, orange slices and cheese.
“I’ve thought about making my own cheese,” said Caryl. “That seems like a lot of work, though.”
The Elzingas realize their way of thinking — and eating — goes against the American grain, and until there is a shift in values and consumer habits, financial concerns will always be an issue for independent ranchers like the Elzingas.
In fact, in the national bestseller Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) author Eric Schlosser writes, “There is one indisputable fact, however, about American ranchers: they are rapidly disappearing…. The sort of hard-working ranchers long idealized in cowboy myths are the ones most likely to go broke today. Without receiving a fraction of the public attention given to the northwestern spotted owl, America’s independent cattlemen have truly become an endangered species.”
“What has kept us alive all of these years is our passion for it,” said Glenn. “Ninety percent of small businesses die within the first five years. I always thought they ran out of money, but what really happened is they lost the passion; they gave up on the vision.
“I believe that there are many farmers today who would like to have a connection between the land they work and the person that eats the food that they grow, more like the way it used to be,” he said.
And that connection is what the Elzingas are working toward.
“A ranch hand whose heart is in the ranch is said to ‘ride for the brand,’” added Caryl. “We feel like we are God’s hired hands, and we ride for his brand. Whatever blooms in this valley will be good.”
— Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark
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