On the Edge

Last weekend I was trying to get work done in my office. With the blackberry season about to start, creamery construction at full pace, and serving as a formal dining Maître D’ or server on alternating nights, life has been full.

To my consternation I was informed that Westar Energy had called and said we were delinquent on our energy bill by $998.50 and would have to rush in to Wichita and make a cash payment through their payment portal within 45 minutes or our power would be disconnected. Naturally this came as a shock and I grabbed my wallet and headed into Dillon’s, where I was told there are pre-paid portal cards that can be used to pay an electric delinquency.

With a little checking I realized this was a scam and I called the fake agent back and informed him that if he would like to come out, I would like for him to try to turn my lights off. I might have said some other words that are not publishable as well. He threatened and challenged and bullied, but of course no one came. I was saddened by the moment realizing that so many forces or nature, time and chance are already against us without human beings working deliberately to steal, cheat, or otherwise cause more sadness than this mortal life must hold already.

On a search for ripe blackberries in the home bramble

After that exercise I needed a walk. I took my measuring tape and my note pad and headed to the berry field. I performed berry counts, trying to count how many berries were on a bush four times, then weighing individual berries to try to understand how many pails we will pick this year.

I love walking in the field right now. It can be hot and humid but it is unbearably exciting. Thick clusters of red and green fruit are everywhere now and getting bigger by the day. A few berries have been picked for the café to use for garnish, berries have been picked for purchase at the Cafe and we picked 12 pails today in a very limited You-Pick, but the general mass is still a week away.

The blackberries are looking beautiful this year despite the freeze damage.

Harvest counts show that our year will be less than what it was last year for sure. Expected poundage is likely to be about 50% of what we did last year. Many buds that initiated in early April perished on April 13 when temperatures dropped to 19 degrees. Acknowledging these sorts of losses brings me to Tennyson’s Ulysses, who said it best: “Though much is taken, much abides.”

This year we are thrilled to look forward to an exciting berry crop. The quality is fantastic, better than last year, and as my son says looking at the ripening berries “I like to eat all ub dem dad.” That sort of a moment with a child is so precious when they look at the world and for a moment desire something good, something lovely and something so exciting that child and parent, cousin and nephew, friend and caretaker all will make the trek just outside Wichita for a chance to share in the harvest of that which abides.

-George Elder

The harvest has begun

 

Creamery Dreams

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.

Elderslie Farm Cheese

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.

-George

A House in the Country

So much is coming down. Gentle leaves drop one by one. Pecans down in the southeast corner of our state are making gentle “plunk, plunk plunk, thud” until the harvester shakes a mighty chorus from the rest. Turnip and beet foliage is drooping towards the earth, a deep green as only foliage touched by cold can be, seeming determined to warm themselves in earth’s bosom. Any tomatoes left in the field cold and lonely are dropping off the vines in a melancholy surrender. Goats are settling down too; milk production is going down and soon they will be dried up for the winter months to wait for spring. All things are settling into the rhythm of the fall, a season of surrender, a season where the searing memories of heat pass into red and golden flourishes rich with recollection and yet quiet and light on the still cold air.

Amidst it all, a house stands in the country. It looks over the Chisolm Creek and is surrounded by brambles. Inside long days are spent considering all things fall. Dining rooms clustered around small wood stoves are filled with dark walnut tables laden with shining stemware and silver placed for the feast. Such rooms await the coming guests, as soft notes of Bill Evans or Stan Getz drift quietly through the air.

 

As the evening begins, potatoes and hard squash are flushed in the oven’s heat and then washed in maple vinaigrette. Peppers are blistered over flame and filled with sage and cheese. Radishes and apples, crisp and vibrant, perch atop oat crackers topped immodestly by a vain radish leaf. All are cheered and accompanied by Brut Rose from the Italian Veneto. Something near, familiar and known, something far and exotic and exciting.

Inside the house as darkness thickens, small cups of duck bisque, immeasurably rich and heartening, go out in flourishes like the high flocks that mark this season so well. It is offered with a Spanish Garnacha that is full and beautiful with weathered oak and notes of balsamic. Before the air clears from such enjoyment the pasta with Romesco comes. Full of smoke and bitter greens, engaging in its strength and complexity of flavor, it is sure to call any remainder of the Garnacha as a companion to its side.

Lest all should perish in richness, a freshly-made boule with a hint of spelt flour and served with coriander honey citrus butter emerges on the server’s hand. And then quick on its heels come beets, cheese, and Mizuna greens; a light interlude to accompany full conversation and a period of rest in the night’s enjoyment.

In the heart of cold evenings as if to defy the chill, Porchetta is set before the guests, rich and alluring yet paired with faithful turnips. Plucked from the earth when small in size and delicate in flavor, these turnips are by precise alchemy a mix of decadent soft and firmly crisp, thus giving the Porchetta a companion worthy of it. Both are served over rich polenta stirred, stirred and stirred until it yields a velvety texture which only care can produce in something as humble as corn. All is paired with a Pinot from our own Oregon; a chorus pairing rather than a diva, it complements and supports the flavors without ever rising above to take a place in the limelight.

 

Lastly, as cold still night settles over the landscape and rabbits stir to nibble around the berry canes, a small soufflé arrives. A consummation of dark chocolate, egg, sugar and butter, it is balanced by a water ganache which is bitter and divine in contrast. All is topped by pecans, rosemary, and a Mascarpone cream that shows in stark white above the chocolate below.

 

In a house in the country surrounded by brambles, guests begin departing in twos and threes. I see one couple pause for a kiss and I feel a sense of fullness about it all. I am glad to serve in a house in the country – glad for all the people who make the preparations and all those who enjoy. And as darkest night comes down, I am thankful for all things fall.

 

George Elder

In the Heat of Summer

July 12, 2017
Dawn is breaking on another summer day in Kansas. Wisps of cloud belie the reality that it will reach about 100 degrees later today. The last days have been hot; really beautiful Kansas summer days when it is pleasant until about 10am then the heat starts to hit you. Out in the bramble the plants stand verdant and defiant, having soaked up the week’s heat and done nothing but smile and produce more berries. The berries are the kind of sweet and plump that only these dog days can produce, and with the last flush of ripening heavy on the bushes the trellises are sagging with the immense weight of walls of ripe berries.

It is 6:45 as I leave my office, going to prepare the berry ferry for another day of joyful service as we ferry families, ladies, and little children out into a world where the summer heat is not destroying something but rather creating a world… a world where long rows of ripe berries will take your breath away.

I walked into the bramble at 3pm yesterday thinking that the shimmering heat would make the plants cringe a bit or the berries droop. I was again amazed to stand in the midst of a wonderland. Each year harvest in the bramble pulls me in. I heard a guest say “It’s very hard to walk away from those bushes,” and I agree. I guess that after eight years of getting to know bramble bushes my love for them is no longer the vivacious passion of youth, but it is mellowing into something more. It lives for about four weeks a year during the harvest, and then pines and longs for the other 11 months while we train, prune, care for and wait expectantly for the world to be remade and for the aisles again to hang black and heavy in summers heat.

The bramble is an amazing part of summer. We are so thankful to be able to share it with all the children, and all the families that have chosen to make it part of their tradition of summer. I am off, off to the Bramble.

George Elder

 

2017 Harvest is Upon Us

img_0712Harvest is upon us here at Elderslie. 11 months we have waited for these boisterous plants to prepare themselves again for this rite of summer.

We have a good 7-10 more days to wait, but the berries are sizing in the heat and starting to turn from green to red in the first little pockets. Picking will be 6 mornings a week by reservation through our website. Below is our anticipated schedule. We may open picking early if something changes, but for now this is what we anticipate.

June 16th 8:00am – Picking Reservations open for week of 6/19-6/24

June 19 – First You-Pick Day!

June 23 8:00am – Picking Reservations open for week of 6/26-7/1

Reservations will continue to open Friday mornings for the following week

July 15 or possibly July 22 depending on weather – Last day of You-Pick

We try to accurately schedule our harvest so the fields are never crowded and so everyone gets to pick the pails they signed up for. We will do the best we can so each guest has a lovely outing in the bramble.

In case of inclement weather we may cancel you-pick. Please check our Facebook Page for weather cancellations.

Our brambles are a joyous part of our summer season and we are excited to share the joy with each picker, young or old. We hope to see you in the bramble!

George Elder

Winter in the Bramble

The “off-season” is a term I get asked about a lot since we are involved in agriculture. I always say that there really are just different seasons.

Our blackberries are under covers and will remain there for another 6-8 weeks. Two or three times a week we walk the perimeter looking for rodent incursions or opening the cover ends on warm days to keep the buds from overheating. The turning of the year certainly has us wondering what 2017 will bring. If we don’t suffer a winter loss the canes and buds are set up for an amazing 2017 summer season and we can’t wait to see what happens!

For several years we have been working at developing our goat creamery. This year we hope to begin a small construction project to allow for higher quality and consistent production of goat cheese. The focus would be on summer cheeses, which would be available at the farm during Cafe season, and holiday gifts that could be picked up or shipped. For now, the planning phase continues. The goats are just shutting down production for the year with 12 does in the maternity ward and headed toward spring and early summer kidding.

Since Alexis went on to her new life with Max we have been figuring out how to provide our kitchen vegetables given the long learning curve on vegetable growing. This year we are excited to be partnering with Randy and Debbie Jackson, who live about 2000 feet from the farm, to provide many of the vegetables that will be featured in our Farm to Table dinners and at the Cafe. The Jackson Family has cultivated their land for more than 60 years, continuing a tradition of production on the Chisholm Creek going back more than 100 years. We are thrilled to to work with them.

While April and the joys of spring are on our mind, winter’s long reign must continue and we are thankful to have time to prepare for the coming year.

-George

Once More

Natchez Secondary Fruit 7-9-17

As the heat of a July day seeps and washes over everything it touches I cannot help thinking of Robert Frost’s lines “Miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.” That is where we are. Harvest is past half way through for 2016 but it is hard to say by how much. Monday and Tuesday promise to be spectacular picking days with room for around 100 You-Pickers each day. This bounty of nature is inspiring, exhilarating, and exhausting. We are so thankful for a return of berries to our bramble.

Since February when we started to see buds swell, 2016 has been an emotional and very wonderful journey. When temperatures pitched and shuddered we struggled to keep our little plants alive. When hail raked Valley Center in June, I could only pray. When the first day over 100 came I just bent my head and watched the water tension in our soil. When 4” of rain fell on the weekend of the 4th of July I tried to turn over in my bed and not think about mud or fungus or bugs that love wet soft foliage.

As we have gone through it all it could not have been done without some really great staff who have stuck to it in the afternoons and on Saturday to do what needed to be done. Whether that was training plants, picking up dropped fruit in the bramble or aiding in the harvest, they have walked with us and helped sustain the effort. We are grateful for each of them.

June and July have seen some wonderful picking and many smiling faces of all ages marching triumphantly out of the bramble convinced that their pail was the best one of the day and not willing to even consider questioning of that fact. We are so thankful for all the people who have chosen to come and make the harvest here a part of their family’s summer.

Now since it is Saturday afternoon, I am going home and I am going to rest and Monday I shall ride, with Henry, “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.” These are exciting times and each morning brings a dawn full of possibilities, and lately, full of berries. We are excited to see all the familiar and new pickers clambering onto the berry ferry and marching proudly out of the field with their prize.

George Elder
July 9, 2016

When Next Year Comes

IMG_0329With 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.

Behind the Scenes at a Farm to Table Dinner

While we await the renovation of interior spaces and the construction of our new kitchen, we thought we would share a few photos from one of the last dinners to be served from the old kitchen, on October 2nd, 2015. (As soon as possible we will put the next round of dinners on the calendar and reservations can commence.)

Every series of dinners begins with the choosing and testing of recipes based on what’s fresh on the farm or available locally. Some of the prep for each event begins the previous day but most of the cooking is completed on the day of the dinner.

The outdoor spaces are readied for guests. The tables and railing were the creation of Elderslie Woodworks.

The beautiful tables (handcrafted with Kansas walnut that was harvested and milled by Elderslie Woodworks) are set using fresh flowers from our own gardens or the gardens of Chisolm Creek Flowers next door whenever possible. The zinnias used on this particular evening had finished serving their purpose attracting beneficial bugs to pollinate the veggies and deter pests.

Just before guests arrive, final preparations are completed and the staff gather for final instructions.

Stay tuned on Facebook or sign up for our newsletter for the latest information on Farm to Table dinners. We’re also on Instagram and Twitter @eldersliefarm.

A Cold Snap and Berry Covers

As of March 14th, the berries look great but with the promise of 28 degrees or lower in a few days, we were preparing for the north wind to blow, blow, blow. God bless the young men who helped pack 700 sand bags.

The sandbags were delivered to Longfield and rolls of covering were set in place. Many rolls were unrolled and the plants tucked in.

It may have seemed odd to be covering plants in such beautiful weather but the next morning was quite blustery and it was clear that it needed to be done. The remaining berry plants at the farm bramble were covered and then it was time to wait.

After two nights in the 20s, the temperatures rose enough to uncover the berries, but with more cold weather a possibility the covers and sandbags have been left in place in case they are needed again. The preference is to keep the berries uncovered when at all possible since the extending shoots can suffer some “discomfort” when the covers are on.

IMG_1707
Temperatures are up so berries are uncovered but covers are in place just in case…