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Conservation Stories: Elvin Kalsbeek


An older man stands in front of a river with bright green trees on the other side.
Elvin Kalsbeek stands in front of the South Fork of the Nooksack River
Years ago, the river was like a snake and there were trees around it. So, it shaded the river and kept the water cooler. Gradually over the years, the river has been straightened out, and most of the land has been cleared and farmed. So, the waters temperatures have increased, which is not good for the salmon that come up here on the South Fork. So the more trees we plant the better for them.” Elvin Kalsbeek – Farmer on the South Fork of the Nooksack River

Bridge labeled "Mama's Garden River Entrance" is in the foreground with fields and irrigation equipment in the background.
Entrance to Elvin's fields on his family farm.

Surrounded by emerald green in every direction, Elvin Kalsbeek’s farm is framed by foothills on either side and the snowcapped peaks of the Twin Sisters preside over his crops. He runs a unique operation growing corn and grass silage for Coldstream Dairy, along with a new Whatcom County favorite: bigleaf maple syrup! Today the farm is a partnership between himself, his brother, and his oldest son. His daughters run the Mama’s Garden vegetable stand where his property meets the highway. He hopes the farm stays in the family for many years into the future. This generational consideration has motivated Elvin to think creatively about his farming.


Old trees are interspersed with new seedlings in blue tubes.
Established Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) native plantings interspersed with new Salmon Recovery Riparian Program (SRRP) seedlings.

Raised as a dairy farmer in Whatcom County, Elvin did not enjoy how cutthroat dairying could be. This led him to begin diversifying his land use, and elevate the value of retaining the ecological value of the land. Over two decades ago, Elvin Kalsbeek and his partners enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) with assistance from the Whatcom Conservation District, to establish buffers of native trees and shrubs along the streambanks of his farm. The 12,210 seedlings planted on over 45 acres helped reclaim critical habitat for our endangered salmon, threatened birds, and other wildlife. In exchange for putting his land into conservation, the CREP program pays annual rental payments for the land utilized by the new riparian buffer.


I decided it was well worth it to sign up, and it has proved to be an excellent program. CREP pays me really well. This [new planting] is adding to my CREP program. We're going all along the river here with these plantings, and it's enhancing the CREP plantings.” – Elvin Kalsbeek

Man walks in field with rows of blue tubes filled with seedlings.
Elvin Kalsbeek walking his new SRRP seedlings in blue protective tubes.

While CREP works for many landowners, it is not a blanket solution. Now in 2023, Elvin collaborated with Whatcom Conservation District, again, under the newly developed Salmon Recovery Riparian Program (SRRP). The SRRP offers more flexibility for riparian buffers without the direct payments from putting the land into conservation. However, the plantings can provide compensation to landowners in other ways.

We're looking into carbon credits. All this heavy planting, like this, you can sell some credits to people, so we're working with a co-op to do that. Yeah, just it's a way to keep the farm in the family because we can't dairy anymore.” – Elvin Kalsbeek
A hand holds a bottle of maple syrup in front of trees and seedlings in blue tubes.
Mama's Garden Maple Syrup bottle in front of CREP & SRRP plantings.

Beyond carbon credits, the flexibility of SRRP allows for the riparian planting to become a working forest. Elvin Kaslbeek, is using that flexibility to grow his bigleaf maple syrup business.


A couple years ago, one of my neighbors got the bright idea of tapping bigleaf maple trees. He told me about it, and I got excited about it because we have lots of big old maples here on the farm. We started tapping it and he's doing the processing right now. This year we have collected about 7000 gallons of sap and that equates to only about 70 gallons of syrup. So it takes quite a bit to make a little bit of syrup.” – Elvin Kalsbeek

Man holds syrup bottle in front of rows of seedlings in blue tubes.
Elvin Kalsbeek holds his bottled maple syrup in front of SRRP plantings, that will be 25% bigleaf maples.

Through SRRP, over 12,000 native trees and shrubs were planted, on over 20 acres belonging to the Kalsbeeks. Approximately twenty-five percent of those plants are bigleaf maples that will contribute to Elvin’s growing business. A cousin to the sugar maple, the bigleaf maple yields less productive sap than the sugar maple, but creates delicious syrup when in the hands of a patient and dedicated sugarer such as Elvin.


We are doing a third to a quarter bigleaf maple trees in this planting. This will give me a lot of trees to tap in the future. It doesn’t really matter what we plant [for the fish] as long as they grow up and give a good canopy for shade.” – Elvin Kalsbeek

Although the newly planted trees are young now, they display a superpower of successful farms: intergenerational planning. Although Elvin may never be able to tap the trees planted by this round of SRRP, he is committed to ensuring a prosperous and secure future for his children, his grandchildren, and so on. He continues to think thoughtfully about how to use his land in ways that will help future generations of Kalsbeeks and salmon.


Fence posts surround seedlings in blue tubes. Two mountains poke over the foothills in the background.
Elk exclusion fencing around SRRP seedlings.

While the seedlings are young and vulnerable, they are being protected from the growing South Fork Valley elk heard and beaver populations. Funding is included for fencing with all the new riparian plantings. This fencing will be maintained long enough to protect the vulnerable seedlings, until they are established enough to provide excellent habitat for all the species in the area.



Logs and pilings in a river with green trees in the background.
Engineered Logjam adjacent to Elvin's property on the South Fork.

The stream bank planting infrastructure partners with work the Nooksack Tribe is doing in the river along Elvin’s property to increase salmon and other species’ habitat. They have installed several engineered logjams, in the river adjacent to his property. These logjams provide complex habitat for salmon and protect the landscape from erosion and flood damage.


The river has tried to take some of our forest away, so we keep planting more trees. The Nooksack tribe has built a few logjams a few years ago, and they're supposed to be coming in this year to build some more. [All this] makes better salmon habitat and protects our land at the same time.” – Elvin Kalsbeek
A farm stand painted red with lots of veggies and a barn behind.
Mama's Garden farm stand.

Just 20 years ago it would have been impossible to get maple syrup from anywhere closer than the Midwest. Now you can find Elvin’s syrup at Mama’s Garden, their store just a short walk away from their fields and at a few other locations across the county. Mama’s Garden located at 2600 Valley Hwy, Deming, WA 98244, they sell maple syrup, beef, vegetables, eggs, poultry, and more. You can visit Elvin’s property and see the river by booking one of the several camping spots.


No matter where we live, we can be mindful of how our actions can impact the future. To learn more about opportunities for installing native plant buffers on your property, reach out to us and schedule a site visit today. We at Whatcom Conservation District love to help farmers, and other landowners, find creative solutions for their land use that will help protect it into the future, for generations to come.


A man smiles standing next to a fence post. Behind him are seedlings in blue tubes, fields, hills, and mountains.
Elvin Kalsbeek stands with his new SRRP plantings.

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