Home on the farm

Elder Farms — 136 years of family farming

EVART — Framed on the wall of the Elder home is a picture of Axle, Craig Elder’s prized bull that received national recognition in 2007.

“It was our first claim to fame,” said Kathy Elder, Craig Elder’s mom.

Axle was bred by artificial insemination on Dave and Kathy Elder’s farm, where even the animals who don’t make it into the national spotlight are treated like a prized possession.

The Elders own 400 cattle. The cows are milked three times daily, the steers are raised for beef sales and some of the best animals of the bunch are shown at the county fair.

Still, animals don’t have to produce to have a place at the Elder farm. Even those cows who are past their prime have a place to call home.

“For the retired 4-H cows, when they can no longer be at the barn, they come over here to live out their life in the pasture,” Kathy said. “The kids always told me they were going to put a sign on the pasture saying, ‘Kathy’s Retirement Home.’”

After spending three weeks with an animal at the Osceola County Fair and Michigan State University week in the summer, Kathy said the farmer and the cow form a connection.

“They really become a family pet,” Kathy said. “I try not to get real (attached) to the other cows.”

Kathy isn’t the only Elder with a love for the animals. Dave Elder also said his favorite thing about working on his farm is being with the cows.

Dave, 59, gets up every day at 4:30 a.m. to milk the cows for the first of the day’s three milkings, giving him plenty of quality time to spend with the animals.

“I like working with the cows,” Elder said. “I’m perfectly happy. I’ve never thought of doing anything else.”

The original 80-acre Elder farm was established in 1876 by John and Laura Elder, Dave’s great-grandparents. The farm was passed down to their son, John H., and his wife, Lillian, in 1926. Their son, Dorman, and his wife, Betty, took over the farm in 1950 and purchased the neighboring George Valentine farm. A new milking parlor and free stall barn, which still stands today, was built on the property.

Dorman and Betty, Dave’s parents, then purchased two more neighboring farms: the Norman Alexander Farm and Morgan-McLachlan Farms to add acreage for corn and hay production.

Today, Dave and Kathy run the 768-acre farm with their sons, Corey, and his wife, Jen; Craig, and his wife, Kelly; and Chris.

Each of the three Elder brothers and their families live within a 2-mile radius of the farm on 80th Avenue in Evart Township. The boys help their dad milk the cows every day, Kelly helps with the beef business and Jen takes photos at county fairs.

Unlike many children of other former farmers in the area, the fifth generation of Elders have no desire to leave the farming business. Dave and Kathy encouraged their sons to pursue a career of their choice, and each chose to continue work in the family livelihood.

“That’s rare. I consider us fortunate,” Dave said.

Growing up on the farm, the young Elders had to wake up at 6:30 a.m. every day to start their chores. While other children may have had the pleasure of sleeping in on weekends, the Elder boys said the experience of early morning work is worth it.

“It keeps you out of trouble. It keeps you busy. I liked it,” Craig said.

Although getting up so early was not always fun, Chris said receiving an allowance when other kids didn’t was good compensation.

“It’s a good way to raise kids. They learn about responsibility,” Dave said. “There’s a lot to be learned on a farm.”

Dave and Kathy have eight grandchildren, all likely candidates for a sixth generation of Elder farmers.

Each generation of Elders started showing cows in the county fair at age 3. Craig and Chris agree that going to the Osceola County fair each summer was their favorite memory growing up on the Elder farm. Craig and his cow once advanced to a national show in Kentucky, and the boy’s dairy quizbowl team once made it to the national competition in New York.

In 2010, the Elders added the sale of individually packaged beef to their operation. In 1998, they began selling quarters and halves and recently began selling smaller portions to accommodate customer needs. Kathy said the new service makes the high-quality Elder meat available for those who might not have storage room or the funds to buy a quarter or a half of an animal.

“Now people can come out and buy $15 to $20 of meat at a time,” Kathy said.

The Elders sell individually-packaged steaks, roasts, ground beef, summer sausage and more. Elder’s Dairy Beef can be purchased at Wieler’s Food and Furniture Mart in Sears, K.C.’s Party Store in Evart and East Bay General Store near Chippewa Lake. They also donate some beef to benefits and charity events.

With the expansion of the farm’s size and services, the Elders may soon need to hire additional help. The success of the beef business has created a need to increase the size of the herd.

Though vacations are few and far between and dinner might not be eaten until 9:30 p.m. in the summertime, the Elders make occasional time for fun. They bought a swimming pool when their boys were young to give them a place to play. Sundays — after milking — serve as a day off for the family, who may go out to eat or just relax around the house.

The Elders also are an active part of the Evart community. Dave is involved in the Osceola County Fair board and 4-H Dairy board, and Kathy is on the Evart Library board.

“By and large, it’s been a good life,” Dave said. “I love it. There’s nothing I’d rather do.”