The Elk Whisperer

A Monticello man raises the steaks

Joel Espe never set out to be a leader in the elk farming business. Not back in 2000, anyway, when the no-nonsense high school principal, who lives in Monticello, was looking for something relaxing to do when he retired.

“A friend of mine raised elk and I used to help him some,” says Espe. “One day I just came home and told the wife I’m going to start building a fence, I want to raise elk.”

Today Espe is a nationally known elk expert. His farm, Hawks Hill Elk Ranch, has won thirty-seven national and international meat competitions, and his elk has been served at some of Chicago’s top restaurants, including The Gage, Topolobampo and Naha. In addition, Espe has served on USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s Advisory Council as one of twenty-five leading livestock producers in the U.S., and led a number of national and state elk and farmers associations. 

“All those things catapulted me out of leading that boring life I was looking for when I retired,” he laughs. But Espe wouldn’t want it any other way. As spring approaches, he and his wife, Cheri, are looking forward to watching all of the new elk spring to life. “During calving season we almost never watch TV; we’re sitting outside watching the little ones run around,” says Espe. “It’s always something new and different.” 

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