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The Land of the Tall Grass, Again.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing results from the hard work that you’ve done yourself. Our ranch’s soil health is improving because of the work we’ve done, and our rangelands provide for us every summer because we’ve put in the time to regenerate them. It only gets better every year, and it’s somewhat addictive because as long as we keep doing it right, we’ll keep seeing results.”
Above the Salmon River, a puff of smoke clings to the canyon wall, signaling to voyeurs that the remnants of the Moose Fire have yet to fully reshape the landscape, consuming the old and allowing the new to take root. As the corridor widens farther south, the Pahsimeroi river leads west into a gloriously wide, high desert valley framed by central Idaho’s rocky mountains. Pahsimeroi means “land of tall grass,” and yet it isn’t until the boundaries of the thousand acres that make up the Alderspring Ranch headquarters that the lush green vegetation of the name’s origin come into view.
Glenn and Caryl Elzinga have ranched this area of Idaho for over 20 years, hoping to mold a better future with the seven daughters they’ve raised, the ecosystems they’ve restored and the cattle they’ve grown to feed families around the country.
With an ever-increasing share of their operation stewarded by their daughters Melanie, Abigail, Linnaea, Emily, Rebekah, Annie and Maddy, Alderspring Ranch produces certified organic grass-fed beef that has been raised without hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides or any synthetic materials. Their meat is butchered and processed in Montana, then shipped direct to homes across the country year-round. The Elzingas pride themselves on producing their harvests regeneratively by improving land health, sequestering carbon and restoring wildlife habitats. What unites them is their love of family, the land and what Alderspring Ranch means for the next generation of agriculturalists.
From the fertile soil of the family’s headquarters, one can view the 45,000 additional acres of leased Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service grazing allotments that comprise the rest of their ranch. Their horizons expand from the Salmon River to where the timberline meets the sky.
George Washington said, “Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful and most noble employment of man.” Ranching in the West, however, is not for the faint of heart. One carries the weight of the world (and its future) when endeavoring to feed a nation. The task of caring for the lives of animals and the biodiversity of a landscape while contending with wildfire, drought, flood, predators, low pay and the hostility of urban encroachment is rarely understood by the people they serve. Ranching promises 365 days of work with little fiscal reward. The payments come, instead, from a life lived outside with an abundance of fresh air, freedom and quiet, and the deep satisfaction that stems from hard physical labor, a job well-done and knowing exactly where your food comes from.
In the early years of Alderspring Ranch, Glenn and Caryl were summering 250 cow/ calf pairs in the high country beneath Taylor Mountain’s looming 7,000-foot summit. Glenn, along with his two oldest daughters, Melanie and Abigail, spent his days looking for cattle spread out over 70 square miles. Sometimes the job required them to chase cattle out of riparian areas to help maintain sensitive ecosystems, oftentimes riding 20 or 30 miles a day.
“While we were scoring some low-bar woody regeneration and a lot of our riparian plants were starting to recover, we weren’t really moving the needle of improving the landscape like we thought we would,” explained Glenn, who relies on his former career as a BLM silviculturist and Caryl’s PhD in wetland and riparian systems to make their land management decisions. “We came into [ranching] a little arrogant, thinking, ‘With our background, we can do this,’” he added, referring to their desire to improve the landscape through ranching. “And it became a very difficult premise to crack with just Melanie, Abby and myself riding around in the high country.”
Growing increasingly discouraged by the lack of improvement in habitat quality they were making, the return of the wolves would be their undoing.
“The thing that changed our world was when wolves started moving into our allotment. They definitely had a penchant for organic grass-fed beef,” Glenn said. “At first, it was a few here, a few there, but then in 2014, we lost 14 head. They were annihilating us.” The Elzingas were ready to end their pursuit of greener pastures through cattle ranching as it became increasingly clear they were losing both the ecological and economic battles of their business.
The answer to their problems came from an unlikely source that Christmas, when the family gathered at a neighbor’s house to sing carols. Amidst the chorus of voices, a Charles M. Russell painting on the wall caught Glenn’s eye — cowboys living with their cattle as they moved them across the Great Plains. Their reasoning for living with the cattle in those days was to protect the cattle from wolves, grizzlies and rustlers, as well as moving cattle to good grass and keeping them from bad water.
“And while we didn’t have rustlers,” Glenn said, “we had wolves, black bears and mountain lions, and I needed to make sure the cattle were grazing good grass.” His mind was running rampant with the theoretical virtues of returning to the historic management practices of the American cowboy. Why don’t we do it the way they did it?
The Elzingas mulled it over throughout the winter, but Glenn couldn’t be deterred; he believed he was onto something. While he had the utmost confidence in the crew of daughters he was raising, they were going to need more help to implement this new system of ranching. The Elzingas approached the Nature Conservancy with their idea to graze cattle the old cowboy way, and the group was quick to recognize its merits. The conservancy offered to pay for the additional employees for the first three years to ensure the project’s success.
There was no turning back. The Elzingas shifted their whole paradigm of ranching to what they now refer to as “inherding,” short for “intensive herding.” This changed their focus from keeping cattle out of areas to keeping them moving slowly and grazing in predesignated areas.
It took a few years to fine-tune the process, but now crews of two to five “range riders” rotate in and out of temporary cow camps in the backcountry while working and living with the cattle in four-day shifts. The range riders herd the cattle to specific grazing locations to prevent over utilization of forage, leaving 55 miles of riparian area on their allotment undisturbed by cattle.
At night, the riders corral the cattle into a small pasture surrounded by an electric fence near one of 11 backcountry camps they set up each summer. The camps each consist of a communal canvas cook tent where the range riders eat, surrounded by a handful of canvas tent sleeping quarters. The “crew boss” tracks the cattle’s movements via a GPS unit that pings every 10 minutes, generating a map of where they’ve been. However, the Elzinga women don’t need a map directing their movements anymore. They move across the landscape from memory. “These gals know every rock up there,” boasts Glenn.
“We’ve ridden it so much over the years,” adds Linnaea. “We’ve covered pretty much every inch of that 70 square miles, year after year.” The GPS is used to compile and track their summer grazing path, which then becomes available data to the Forest Service and general public via yearly reports published by the Bureau of Land Management.
It’s been almost a decade since the Elzingas switched from summering cow/ calf pairs in the high country to the intensive management system they utilize today with yearling and two-year-old beef cattle. According to the Elzingas, their riparian areas now flourish with an abundance of native plant and animal life, including beavers that once again build their dams in stream channels. Soil health has vastly improved, and upland grasses grow tall and dense. Through the implementation of inherding, the range has slowly healed from decades of overgrazing, and predators have ceased to be an issue for them in the Salmon River corridor.
For the Elzinga daughters, their earliest memories are of trailing their dad through the hills on horseback, riding shotgun on the feed truck and checking fences perched in front of Glenn on his Honda motorcycle. These are memories that have shaped who they are today in profound, countercultural ways. Melanie remembers working cattle in the cold of late fall when she was seven years old.
“I was frozen, exhausted, and hungry,” she said. “I was bringing up the back of the herd and it began to snow — big white flakes falling through the leaden sky. I began to cry. Dad rode back to me [asking], ‘Do you need to go home? You can go back and get warmed up.’ I tried to keep the tears from my voice as I responded, ‘No. I want to stay and finish.’ The truth is, I did want to stay. It was important to me to finish the job and do right by my dad and the animals in our care, miserable as I was. Over the years, my sisters and I learned that the true reward was in finishing a job to the best of our abilities, and that was one of the first times I recognized it.”
That confidence and resilience is something they are passing on to the crews of range rider interns. Coming from a myriad of urban and rural backgrounds, they congregate in Idaho, where they call the high country home each summer under the watchful eyes of the Elzinga women who operate as “crew bosses.”
According to Melanie, they thoroughly vet the applicants, looking for people who are smart and humble and who want to be doing this kind of work. Often, they’ve found it’s easier to take on riders who have limited horse or cattle experience, as they’re more receptive to the unique ranching methods at Alderspring Ranch. The ranch has also dedicated a large amount of time to their string of horses in order to pair riders with horses that match their experience, often crediting “intern horses” with taking better care of their riders than the riders do of them.
After a lengthy summer, the range riders bring the cattle home by mid-August, when the high elevation grass has begun to wither and the cattle have stopped gaining weight. The riders then begin the slow journey of herding their cattle 20 miles back to the fertile valley of Alderspring headquarters for the winter. In the valley, the cattle are still moved daily across the pastures, with new hotwire boundaries placed to keep them in specific grazing areas. According to Glenn, there are two factors this system is meant to maximize: cattle weight gain and healthy pasture grasses.
“I need to know that I’m building plant diversity above ground,” explains Glenn, kneeling in the pasture while running his hands through the thick vegetation beneath his feet. “I’ve got to know that I’m leaving photosynthetic capability on the ground, which is putting enough sugar down into the roots so that it’ll grow back for my next grazing rotation. It’s taken five to ten years, but we have about 80 different species growing on our irrigated ground. We used to have about five.”
“We routinely graze very lightly,” adds Caryl. “For us, as a rule of thumb, we try not to graze more than 40% of the growing green material.” According to her, this strategy encourages a faster regrowth of plant matter. She insists it’s not just about grazing — the greater the life in the soil, the more carbon gets stored amongst the inert soil mineral particles. The USDA can verify that for every pound of beef Alderspring Ranch produces, they put eight pounds of atmospheric C02 back into the land.
“We’re proud to say that we’re carbon negative and climate positive, but for us, it’s more of a metric of soil health, biodiversity and plant productivity,” says Glenn. Using the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) metrics produced by the Environmental Protection Agency, Alderspring can track every avenue in which greenhouse gasses are produced. For example, the LCA takes into account the fuel required to feed hay in the winter and to run the plant that processes their beef, as well as the energy to make dry ice to ship their end product. The report also measures organic matter and other soil metrics to calculate how much carbon is in the ground and how much carbon levels change over time.
While monitoring carbon may seem unconventional within the ranching industry, Alderspring Ranch is not the only operation tracking this aspect of their enterprise. Glenn regularly consults with his friend, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia, who was one of the first ranchers to monitor carbon. With the increasing prevalence of labels professing “regenerative,” “grass-fed” and “beyond organic” accolades, the numbers matter.
Alderspring Ranch is currently certified organic by the Idaho Department of Agriculture, making it the largest certified organic ranch in the country. To maintain this certification, there are a myriad of procedures and third-party inspections the Elzingas must comply with throughout the year. One such required procedure is mechanically removing noxious weeds along the roadsides on their range. This means that throughout the summer, the Elzinga women make trips into the high country armed with Pulaski axes and weed whackers to rid the landscape of knapweed. These women seem to thrive on this tedious, back-breaking labor.
“There’s nothing more rewarding than seeing results from the hard work that you’ve done yourself,” Maddy says. “Our ranch’s soil health is improving because of the work we’ve done, and our rangelands provide for us every summer because we’ve put in the time to regenerate them. It only gets better every year, and it’s somewhat addictive because as long as we keep doing it right, we’ll keep seeing results.”
According to a 2017 national census, the average age of all U.S. farm producers was 57.5 years. Despite participating in an industry that hemorrhages its youth to city life, nearly all of the Elzinga women plan on lending their gifts and expertise to the continuation of Alderspring Ranch.
“They are aware it’s a hard way to make a living, but I think that our operation is a little bit different from a lot of other folks’ in that there’s hope for a continued future,” explains Caryl, surrounded by three of her seven daughters.
For many ranching families, the next generation is not given the option to come home after college because the land and lifestyle simply won’t financially support additional family members. Glenn and Caryl are open to their daughters diversifying the operation, adding additional forms of revenue while growing and ultimately taking over the areas they are passionate about. “We’ve encouraged them to think of ways to expand [the business] without necessarily expanding our land base, which is the hardest asset to obtain,” explained Caryl.
For Melanie, this mindset from her parents has made a big impact on her life. “I think they have done us a big favor in ranching with a very open mindset of trying different things,” she says. “I used to be a bit ashamed that our practices were so different, but now I’m proud that my parents built a legacy of ranching in an unconventional way.”
“That stubbornness to figure it out and question what’s ‘always been done’ led to a lot of out-of-the-box thinking that made our ranch what it is today. They’ve tried to pass that sort of creative thinking on to us daughters, and we’ll need it in the face of today’s rapidly changing technology. I think a lot of people see change as a threat to ranching, but we see a lot of hope and opportunity here,” Linnaea adds.
According to Caryl, she and Glenn are on a different trajectory than most ranchers because they can hold their ranch open-handedly without clinging to the work of generations before them. “If none of the kids want to continue this, we’re okay,” Caryl says, adding that they have alternative career options, a reality that is not easily afforded to ranchers who have done agriculture work their entire lives. “That’s why I’ve pushed all of my girls to go to college or to leave for at least a few years and do something else.”
“I think that’s the biggest thing for us — that leaving actually showed us this is the best place to be,” says Linnaea.
Her sister Annie agrees. “Growing up on a ranch has taught me to appreciate the long days in the saddle or on the ground building fences. It’s taught me to be grateful for the rain after a 90-degree day. If I hadn’t grown up on a ranch, I’m not sure that I would recognize the importance of knowing where your food comes from. It’s taught me to be grateful for my family. Working with your sisters isn’t always easy, but has brought us closer.”
According to Glenn, many ranchers are trapped in an economic system where it’s very difficult to make money, so they don’t have time to think about how to regenerate the land. He suggested that there needs to be a shift in how regenerative grazing is incentivized. Ranchers need a safety net and the tools required to improve plant diversity, and in turn, better grazing and cattle productivity. “Now, after 10 years, we can run twice as many cattle on the same amount of ground, which is incredible. You’re putting investment into the land instead of just taking,” he insists.
Despite the hardship and endless toil, there is a joy and enthusiasm amongst the mold-breaking Elzingas — the calluses of their hands softened the once hard-packed soil, allowing it to burst forth with new growth. It’s a tangible indication of hope on a remote landscape where the land is swathed in tall grass, once again.
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