Senior ranch management major Avonlea Elkins has always felt comfortable switching from heels to cowboy boots.
Even as a child, Avonlea moved between being a girly girl and Daddy’s little wrangler. She recalled one childhood memory centering on her mother getting her dressed in a pink polka dot skirt and high socks with ruffles. Her mother completed the outfit by delicately tying a bow in Avonlea’s hair.
Just as her mother finished, Avonlea said her dad called out, “Honey c’mon, we’re just going on the tractor.”
Her family’s home has a Fort Worth zip code, but Elkins grew up in unincorporated Tarrant County near Eagle Mountain Lake.
The working ranch includes a cow-calf operation, a method of raising calves that will one day be sold to market.
As a child, Avonlea said she thought everyone lived on a ranch, and everyone grew up around cows.
“I remember one time, I must’ve been two or three years old, and my grandma was moving from Arizona into a house near us. We drove up to her new home and I asked, ‘but mom, where is she going to put her cows?’ ”
Once she started school, she began to realize her life was different from her classmates.
“They would ask me, ‘did you ride a horse to school? Did you ride a tractor to school?’ No, I was just a normal kid,” Elkins said.
Normal for Avonlea meant missing class during branding season. Some friends wouldn’t come over because their cars would get dirty on the gravel road.
Avonlea’s father made sure she and her younger siblings learned to work the ranch. She said he taught them how a ranch operates after he asked her younger brother T.J. to unhook the tractor one day.
T.J. had no idea what to do, and Avonlea said her dad sunk in his seat, dumbfounded.
“It killed me because T.J. was definitely old enough to know how to do that,” Dick Elkins, Avonlea’s father, said. “From that moment forward I decided to get [my children] involved in the day to day operations to teach them about work ethic.”
Because of this moment, Avonlea has found herself in a familiar place each summer.
“Since then my summers have consisted of me being on the tractor,” Avonlea said.
In high school, Avonlea loved being involved, and she joined as many student organizations as she could.
“I did choir, cheer, dance, Stuco, NHS, and pretty much every club I could get my hands on,” Elkins said.
Avonlea wanted to go to Texas Tech for most of her senior year in high school. Her dad was an alumnus and it seemed like it would be a good fit.
But, in April of that year, her mom finally convinced her to visit TCU, saying it would be a challenge.
The over-achiever in Avonlea couldn’t turn down a challenge.
The morning of the visit, Avonlea’s mom told her that they were going to visit the Ranch Management program, something that was unique just to TCU.
“I thought, ‘Why would I want to do Ranch Management? That’s for boys,’ ” Elkins said. “I eventually went in just to shut her up, but I knew I wouldn’t like it and I don’t like dressing western.”
Avonlea said she walked in Kerry Cornelius’ office, who is the director of the Ranch Management program. Cornelius immediately questioned whether she was in the right place.
“I’m brutally honest with all the female applicants because I want to make sure they’re prepared for this industry,” Cornelius said. “After talking to Avonlea, I was able to see that she truly has a passion for this industry.”
Avonlea understood why Cornelius was skeptical. She said she didn’t fit the traditional Ranch Management student prototype, but she was determined to show him that she belonged.
“Who’s going to hire a girl to do Ranch Management, especially a blonde like me who looks like a bimbo,” Elkins said.
Avonlea joked she is completely unique to the Ranch Management program in at least one-way. “I do think I’m the first sorority girl in the Ranch Management program.”
The Ranch Management program is really just a business program with the cow as a model, Elkins said. She said she loved her time in the program, even if most people don’t believe her when she tells them her major.
“I always have people asking me, ‘what’s your degree? Branch management?’ No, it’s Ranch Management,” Elkins said.
Avonlea said she’s worried about finding a job after graduation, but she’s never wavered from Ranch Management.
“I’ve never changed my major because I knew this is what I wanted to do, and this is where I want to be,” Elkins said.
Like many students, Avonlea picked up a part-time job while in college. The difference is, her job requires runway work.
Avonlea models part-time with the Clutts Agency in Dallas. She has done everything from investment company TV commercials to wedding shoots for D Magazine.
“I love being a girl, getting dressed up, made up, going to Dallas, walking down a runway, taking pictures,” Elkins said. “It’s fun to have that side and be feminine.”
Avonlea said most people think it’s awesome that she enjoys the city life and the country life.
“Either I don’t fit in either place, or I fit in both,” Elkins said.
Avonlea said she prioritizes school and ranching over her modeling career.
“I had the chance to model in some big cities, like Paris and New York,” Elkins said. “But, I never followed through with it because I ended up visiting a hayfield.”
She’s careful to balance her modeling schedule around her schoolwork, and she won’t let herself miss a class for modeling jobs.
“I was on Good Morning Texas one morning, but I had to get back for my 9 a.m. accounting test,” Elkins said.
Avonlea models with a woman who is a member of PETA. Despite their differences, they are friends.
“I told her that it’s funny, the reason I’m in Ranch Management and the reason she’s a member of PETA is because we both love animals,” Elkins said.
Avonlea said that many people misunderstand what people in the ranching industry do.
“It’s not economical to treat the animals badly in ranch management, you’ll lose your profit,” Elkins said. “There’s no sense in treating animals inhumanely.”
She said she’d consider getting with a bigger modeling agency that would be flexible and nice to work with, but that decision will wait until after her internship this summer.
A Future Rancher
It’s common in the ranching industry to go to college and then return to the family ranch, but Avonlea is seeking a different pasture.
Elkins will intern with the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma over the summer. The independent, nonprofit institute conducts research and works with ranchers across the Midwest.
“I was selected as a Lloyd Noble Scholar and will consult alongside the people at the Noble Foundation and help them do research,” Elkins said.
Avonlea added that she is one of nine interns from a pool of hundreds of applicants.
The Noble Foundation does important work because many people follow family ranching traditions, rather than listening to consultation or utilizing professional research, Elkins said.
After her internship, Elkins wants to look into working in the beef and agriculture industry as a whole, citing poor communication between the two.
Avonlea has also thought about working as an advocate, spokesperson or lobbyist for the ranching industry.
If all else fails, Avonlea knows her dad will always welcome her back.
“He’s a little upset that I’m doing this internship this summer, because he really wants me to come back home and work for him, but I’m going to see where this road takes me,” Elkins said.