Kevin Hinkebein pulls his red utility ATV up toward the sloping back pasture of Hinkebein Elk Farm just outside Farmington, Missouri. His white-faced black lab, Bailey, runs alongside, trying to keep up. As he parks, an elk cow, Dora, knowingly approaches. She sticks her muzzle through the gate – like a 500-pound dog greeting its owner.
Hinkebein enters the pasture near the squeeze shoot. It’s a padded stall that electrically squeezes elk in tight to hold them still so Hinkebein can perform health tests twice a year. He pats Dora’s head and gently shoos her to the side of the 8-foot high metal gates.
“Dora’s getting ready to be a mother,” the elk breeder says proudly. Two years ago, Hinkebein bottle-raised Dora in his basement when her mom wouldn’t claim her as a calf. Ironically, his basement represents the full spectrum of the circle-of-life; it’s also where he practices hobby taxidermy.
Bottle-feeding newborn elk isn’t all that unusual. If the mother had a painful birthing process or the calf was born too late, they are typically abandoned. He’s mothered a few calves since he bought his first pair in 1990.
“Those are the hard ones to get rid of,” he says. “Those stay around until they die.”
The other 20 forage-fed elk on his 150 acres are farmed to produce sticks and sausage for wineries in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, like Twin Oaks Vineyard & Winery and Charleville Vineyard, Winery & Microbrewery. He sells boneless loin, whole tenderloin, ground elk and rump roasts to establishments like Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, Missouri, Chaumette Vineyards & Winery in Ste. Genevieve and Celebrations Restaurant and Bar in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Popularity of the lean, flavorful meat is increasing.
“If I had the quantity to sell, the demand is there,” he says.
Nearby, a huddle of elk cows stand in a group by an empty grain trough – he feeds them a small amount daily and lets them graze the field naturally throughout the day. He just sold all of his bulls, which he rotates out every year to continually improve his herd’s bloodline. They are raised naturally without antibiotics, in a process similar to cattle, and once they’re at least 2 years old, they are processed.
During the rut, the mating period that occurs in the fall, Hinkebein likes to sit on his back deck in the evenings and listen to the bulls bugle back and forth. The last rut ended in December, and he suspects his cows are all pregnant – elk calves are typically born in June. He watches them grazing in his other field, in between his home and his back pasture. He can also watch them in this field from the kitchen table of his cozy, country-style home.
The land is the same he and his brothers used to play on as children. His parents bought the property in 1950, and now the 350 acres are split in half by a road. One of his brothers owns one side, and Hinkebein owns the other. Their father raised hogs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens and horses – the sons still have the original cow herd their father started with 50 years ago.
Out of all the people in his family, wildlife resonated the most with Hinkebein. He used to keep raccoons and crows for pets.
“Wild animals were always intriguing to me,” he says. A neighbor of his former in-laws raised elk for more than 20 years, and he would see them out in the field every time he went to visit. This sparked his initial interest in elk, and one day he stopped in to talk to the neighbor about his herd. Later, the farmer sold him his first pair in 1990.
The back pasture they’re hanging out in now is where, in July, Hinkebein hosted six Missouri chefs and more than 100 people for a dinner called It’s All About Elk.
The experience was the brainchild of executive chef Adam Lambay of Chaumette Vineyards & Winery, just down the road from Hinkebein’s farm. Lambay works to build relationships with many farmers and producers in the area. He sees it as his responsibility to contribute a more meaningful culinary experience. Seven years ago, Hinkebein brought him some elk to cook, and he was surprised by its mild game flavor – he says it’s less gamey than venison or antelope and would compare it more closely to bison.
“It’s very lean; I would describe the texture as a lean beef,” Lambay says. “It has a rich, bold flavor that pairs well with deep red wines, like Nortons.”
Hinkebein often hand-delivers the meat himself, but Lambay has also been to the farm often since then. Lambay enjoys visiting his farmers in person.
“I get to see what they are doing and have a conversation with them, and it makes relationships a lot stronger when they truly appreciate what I do and I appreciate what they do,” Lambay says. “It’s validity, I think.”
Hinkebein gladly celebrates elk. Although the humble man would never admit it himself – his fiancée, Valerie, has to tell people for him – he consistently works to introduce people to eating elk and helps mentor new breeders. When he has the opportunity to take a vacation from his work at the farm, he spends it volunteering at the Missouri state fair just to promote and grow awareness about elk.
“I’m never going to get rich off of elk,” he says. “I just think it’s a livestock industry that needs to stay here.”
According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, elk were plentiful in the state before European settlements drove them almost to extinction by the late 1800s. In 2010, with renewed interest in restoring the state’s elk population, the Department launched an effort to trap elk in other states and release them in Missouri. In late 2014, the Department estimated that about 125 elk had been reintroduced. Depending on population growth, the Department may begin issuing hunting permits for elk in the next few years.
For these reasons, Hinkebein was glad to host the farm-to-table elk dinner. Its scope was to introduce attendees to the idea that elk is locally sourced and expertly prepared by chefs in the area. Much of the crowd consisted of chefs and their families. One of Hinkebein’s daughters, Jessica, not only grew up on the farm, but also now gets to sit on the other side of a table as a chef at Chaumette.
Attendees experienced the full spectrum of elk’s versatility in a family-style casual dinner. Josh Galliano, chef-owner of The Libertine in Clayton, Missouri, prepared a chilled marinated elk tenderloin salad with hazelnuts, salt-cured egg yolks and herbs. Lou Rook, executive chef of Annie Gunn’s in Chesterfield, Missouri, prepared elk carpaccio with toasted pine nuts, Manchego cheese and local tomato relish. Matt Bessler, executive chef at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood, Missouri, created elk and rice meatballs with garden chimichurri and smoked Gouda grits and gravy (paired with Schlafly APA, of course).
Rex Hale, executive chef of The Restaurant at The Cheshire, thought it was a great event. He even took his daughter to the farm to meet the meat.
“I love that they brought people down,” Hale says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring them on the farm where the animals are raised. So many people have no idea.”
Hale sells out every time he features elk in monthly specials like elk chile empanadas or maple-marinated elk loin.
Galliano sourced from Hinkebein long before the dinner. The first time was nearly a decade ago, when he was the chef at now-shuttered An American Place in St. Louis. Hinkebein needed to sell a whole elk and approached him. Galliano was game – pun intended – and planned to butcher it without realizing its size. He learned to utilize the whole animal, and now, he appreciates the nonloin cuts – particularly the hind legs.
“It’s a very lean meat,” he says. “It has a softer muscle structure, so it tends to be tender right off the bat. The nice thing about it is that it has a minerality to the flavor as well as a little sweetness.”
He says a lot of people think of it as a fall meat like most game but suggests that it’s versatile to cook with throughout the year and can be substituted for any of your favorite beef recipes.
These days, Hinkebein isn’t working so hard to market meat, and he needs more calves to satisfy the growing demand. He used to have 35 cows and once worked to sell them. But now that word of mouth is catching on, he sells what he has – that’s why he’s down to 20. He doesn’t even eat a lot of it himself.
When he occasionally runs out, he refers customers to Joyce La Rue of Premium Elks Inc. in Unionville, Missouri (both Hinkebein and La Rue are members of the Missouri Elk Farmers Association; La Rue is the organization’s president). They are the only steadily active breeders for wholesale elk meat in Missouri – all other breeders raise elk for conservation or sell to whom they know.
La Rue’s path to elk farming began in 2004, due to her husband Loyd’s back problems. They learned elk velvet, the fuzzy, not-yet-fully-grown antlers, helps heal arthritis, cartilage and tendon injuries. The material can be made into a powder and taken as a capsule. Some people boil it as tea. La Rue first heard about it at a deer show from a farmer who swore by it.
She didn’t know that by tagging along on the antler pickup, she’d also come home with 21 elk to add to her family’s roughly 3,000-acre Lazy L Elk Ranch on the northern edge of the Missouri-Iowa border. She attributes the decision to an elk cow she met and fell in love with named Molly.
She explains they also raise beef cattle, corn, soybeans, hay and, as she says, “a whole lot of hell,” but that she is the sole operator of the elk portion of the business.
La Rue’s major customer is Sysco Corporation, which serves 425,000 customers around the country including Gram & Dun in Kansas City and BC’s Kitchen in Lake St. Louis, which have both sourced her elk. She also sells wholesale to restaurants around the state, to individuals via her website, premiumelk.com – one customer once placed an order to send elk meat to a member of the military serving in Iraq and Afghanistan – or to Hinkebein’s customers when he’s running low on filling orders for regulars like Matt Bessler at Schlafly Bottleworks.
Bessler trusts the referral because of their relationship. He’s been sourcing from Hinkebein for seven years and met him through Hinkebein’s cousin, who delivered pork to Bessler and told him that Hinkebein needed an outlet to sell.
Now, what Hinkebein has available usually goes straight into Bessler’s elk chili, but he will occasionally have specials if there’s extra. He says you can’t go wrong with elk pot roast. Bessler likes to tell people about Hinkebein and heralds the concept of knowing one’s food.
“I know Kevin, his wife, his kids,” Bessler says. “I’ve seen his farm. I know his characteristics as a person and the business side; I know how he raises his animals and the pride he has in it.”
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