About ten years ago I was sitting at the table with my father and brother discussing goats. How much milk does a goat produce? How much cheese is that? Are there any advantages to smaller production? The questions swirled, and though much discussion was had, they remained mostly unanswered.
Three years ago, the questions started again. Through the interim my mother had maintained a few goats, made cheese, and kept the faith. My mother has always been attracted to slim odds and difficult endeavor. These questions started an odyssey in my life that has taken me around our country investigating small corners of the world and businesses I would never have imagined.
My travels took me and other members of my family from the Redwood Hills Creamery in Petaluma, California, to Idyll Farms which looks out over the lakes at the Northern tip of the Michigan lower peninsula. Along the way I met some interesting characters. In California I met a Swiss dairy scientist who could lose you in the technicalities of milk, bacteria, mold, and complex equipment function. In Iowa I met an American contrarian who probably built cheese caves because he feared nuclear war and being in a cave surrounded by cheese that might be edible for 8-10 years if the world melted down seemed prudent. In Indiana I met German industrialists bent on producing mass quantities of milk and cheese through synchronized systems of industrial organization that never slept with barns that stretched for miles. In little corners of every place I travelled I met poetic souls working as cheese makers or affineurs who followed Thoreau or Wordsworth and believed that small endeavor close to the land was a realization of something human and beautiful.
As with all endeavor, eventually there comes a time when you must decide to go forward or not. That point came as a slow realization wrung out of late-night board meetings, stressful dinner conversations, and idyllic moments pondering cheese in all its glory and possibility. Thus, plans are drawn and the heavy wheels of a building project are turning again here at Elderslie.
The Creamery at Elderslie will be under construction through the spring and into late summer, but will be our largest project to date. We are building a facility to eventually house about 100 milking does with production focused on retail sales of artisan cheeses and gelato here on the farm and as gift items for delivery or shipping. By fall of 2018 we should have a completed facility and be ready to offer a lovely addition to convivial evenings or special gatherings. Local cheeses and goat gelato are on our minds, but for now we will be digging foundations, pouring concrete, building the herd, and keeping the faith.
With June upon us it won’t be long before we will open our You-Pick again here at Elderslie. We are terribly excited to enter into a berry season again with you all. Signup should begin June 16th with our first anticipated picking being on the 20th. Signup (on the website) is required, pails are provided and the cost is $14 per 2.2-quart pail. We hope you will join us.
This year is significant for a few reasons. In 2014 and 2015 from various causes our crop was very disappointing. In 2013 we closed the You-Pick in August after a bountiful season when rains set in and over the month dumped 18 inches of water, or about 450,000 gallons, on our little bramble below the main house and above the west fork of the Chisholm Creek. In 2014 we lost our crop but not our nerve as plans began for a new and better bramble.
Through the winter of 2014 and 2015 many of you watched as we dug in irrigation lines, sunk fence posts, and plotted the Longfield Bramble. April of 2015 was a wonderful and tragic month as we had to acknowledge that we lost another year’s crop, and we took delivery of 1000 little sticks that held the alchemy that is a dormant plant.
2015 saw a great season in our Bramble Cafe, which used all of the small crop that we did have. We saw the beginning seeds of expansion for the Cafe take root and stick as the berries at Longfield grew. Summer 2015 ended in caring for the young plants and preparing for 2016. It was an eventful summer mowing radishes and trying to keep the torrential rains from drowning the young planting.
Next year, next year, always the hope and foolishness of farmers – but it is what keeps us going. Winter 2015 was consumed with wondering. Wondering if there would be a 2016 crop, wondering if Longfield would produce or if we would slip into another year of loss. Through many toils I wondered. But after two years, we have a crop.
To hope is one of our most necessary actions as human beings, and one may never give up hope simply because of failures. While 2016 could still slide into loss through many natural causes yet this year, I am hopeful that we will have a berry year to wash away the memories of loss, complete with the divine and simple joy of small feet and small voices lifted in laughter and joy as the harvest is brought in.
A gambler who plays for fun understands only the brief thrill of mindless chance. A gambler who enters in with knowledge and can acutely calculate the odds and weigh the chance to his favor is a professional. He strives to understand his peril and he continues to risk, resting on his calculation that the odds are within a knowable universe, and that those odds well calculated can be turned to advantage. Growers are gamblers of a sort and this is the season when we are weighing our odds and taking our chances.
Our new bramble looks orderly and sedate. If you walk around it all the plants are bare, and the ground is all garbed in winter’s brown. But, a bramble in winter is the scene of drama and excitement. Out at the end of Row 17 you can find the remnants of a struggle between a grower and a rabbit who took up blackberry plants as part of his diet. I am afraid that rabbit won’t write home to tell about his newfound diet and I better not catch his relatives in there either.
The main show these days is inside these plants. When we look at dormant plants all we see is their unassuming outside, a bare skin studded with tiny buds, all in dull shades of red, brown, and gray. But underneath life is moving towards reproduction, or death is slowly settling into the tissue. Buds once undecided between floral or deciduous growth are making their choice. Buds damaged in one of our cold snaps have already sung their dirge and are slowly drifting into complete non-existence, but buds that are still alive are preparing for their gaudy display when they can unfurl the white petals and produce a blackberry.
Armed with a razor blade, an LED light and a dissection scope, I spend an hour or so every two weeks counting death and life, always hoping, but always aware that even when you know the odds, you have to risk to play the game.
So far, 2016 is looking like a great year, but many days of peril lie before us before winter and spring give way to the season when these plants will finally come into their own.