The Road to Restoration

Rockside Ranch in Etna…

“Restoration is the process of restoring what once was. And so, when I think of life restoration, I think things were going in a good direction and then something happened that changed the trajectory of life, whether it be addiction, mental illness or something like that,” explains Craig Thompson, the director of Rockside Ranch, an eight-month-long life restoration program for young men based out of Etna, with partner operations in South Dakota and Michigan.

Photo courtesy of Rockside Ranch.

“We primarily serve men from 18 to upper 20s,” Thompson says. “And when a guy comes to the ranch, he’s in crisis, which we define as not having the skills to be able to show up on time, sober and ready to work. Those three things came from nationwide employer surveys as the greatest barriers to employability. So, if we can get a guy to be able to consistently do that, that’s half the battle right there.”

Thompson is a fourth-generation farmer who found his calling after a longtime association with a local Christian summer camp. “After college, I was working at Kidder Creek and really fell in love with program ministry and how we intentionally craft a program that can help people. It’s a trend that’s been gaining steam over the last 20 years where you’ve got these wilderness experiences or natural settings where clinicians take their clients to go through a transformative process. And that’s what happens on the ranch. We’re a nonclinical setting, so we don’t provide therapy or medical services, but we provide a structured environment for restoration. It pairs up two things I really love: agriculture and program ministry.”

The Thompson Family. Photo by Asher Beane.

According to Thompson, the ranch is a perfect setting for restoration. “Often times, guys will come here telling us they feel like a failure. But as a guy in his mid-20s, he’s still got two- thirds of his life or more ahead of him. So, it’s more about saying ‘You’re not a failure. We just need to restore your sense of purpose. We need to restore your hope for the future.’ And on a farm, their work bears fruit from day one. They’re collecting eggs 365 days a year. They’re raising day-old chicks all the way up to start laying eggs. We have these piglets that come in that they raise up to be pork. And, in the garden, we start with seeds that become this bountiful harvest of hundreds of pounds of tomatoes. After eight months of this, the students see the fruit of their labor also show up in their own lives.”

While the farm of Thompson’s youth never had livestock, he understands the importance of including it at Rockside. “We’ve got pigs, sheep, goats, horses, dogs and cats,” he says. “We’ve got chickens, turkeys and usually a handful of geese. I mean, there are a lot of animals. And there’s just a real therapeutic element of working with animals because they demand a certain compassion and responsibility. The guys tell us all the time that even when they don’t want to get up for chores in the morning, they know they have to, otherwise the animals could die. It’s a little easier to not water a tomato plant.”

Photo courtesy of Rockside Ranch

Not only does Thompson oversee the entire operation, but he also lives on the Etna ranch with his family, which he believes contributes to the overall success of the program. “It’s not like I’m clocking in and clocking out every day. We live maybe 50 yards away from the student house. They can literally see in our windows, so they get an up-close view of our family and the good, bad and the ugly. And so, I think that really creates a trust between us and the students. They’ll knock on our door for an ingredient for dinner. Or sometimes they come up and want to have a cup of coffee. And those little after-hours moments are some of the coolest moments with the guys.”

The surrounding community has also fully embraced Rockside Ranch, from hiring its students to buying the bounty the ranch produces and sells in local farmers’ markets, as well as its meat through direct shipping. “I’ve been really encouraged that this community has said they want to be a part of the solution. And from everyone, from the church, from our customers, from volunteers, from businesses who’ve employed graduates as tradesmen, over and over and over again, this community has shown up for these guys.”

Photo courtesy of Rockside Ranch

Thompson believes it’s in part because affliction affects everyone. “It’s probably a pretty low percentage of this readership that’s a young man in crisis, but I’ll bet there’s a very high percentage of readers who know one, because almost all of us do. These issues are everywhere. It’s nationwide and no community is spared. Talking with parents and supporters who have referred students, they say they didn’t know how to help. Well, here’s something you can do.” •

To learn more about Rockside Ranch and its life restoration program, visit To become a member of the Ranch Club with products shipped to your door, visit

Article Written by:

Megan Peterson has been a freelance storyteller for more than two decades, with writing credits ranging from National Geographic to the Sundance Channel. She also brings a background in marketing and audio tours, and has traveled and worked on six continents. Megan currently lives in Northern California with her family and a menagerie of pets.

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