Peril and Joy

The Longfield Bramble

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.


Cane sections labeled for bud dissection
Cane sections labeled for bud dissection

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.

-George Elder

Bon Voyage to Alexis

Mail AttachmentThis winter is a strange and full one in many ways. With Christmas coming and the year near to turning, next season is already looming large. In it will be a hole that many of you will surely notice and experience with us.

My dear sister Alexis has been the genesis and the nurturer of all the vegetables at Elderslie to date, as well as a supporter of the general effort, from sinking trellis posts in the blackberry bramble to serving at the farm dinners. She has been here with us at the farm since before we ordered a blackberry plant and certainly before any bramble roots had taken hold of the hillside above the Chisolm Creek. However, she has finished her work here at Elderslie and is off to a new chapter of her life. She is engaged to a wonderful Frenchman named Max, with whom she will no doubt have many fabulous adventures and endeavors, and we wish them the most sincere happiness.

With Alexis’s departure I will be taking over management of the vegetable operations. Our hope for this year is to grow a select offering of produce for use here in the kitchen at Elderslie and for sale at our farm stand; for the 2016 season we will not have a CSA. We will continue developing our produce operation through the coming years.


IMG_0284We send Alexis off with the following poem by Henry Van Dyke:

I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength,
and I stand and watch until at last she hangs
like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other.
Then someone at my side says,
“There she goes!”
Gone where?
Gone from my sight . . . that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar
as she was when she left my side
and just as able to bear her load of living freight
to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment
when someone at my side says,
“There she goes!”
there are other eyes watching her coming . . .
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout . . .
“Here she comes!”

-George Elder

Thanksgiving Reflection

IMG_9096The thorny varieties of blackberries are clinging to their leaves like the old curmudgeons that they are. The younger varieties of thornless canes, bred for a less brutal age, are largely bare with bulging fruit buds, casting their hope almost entirely on the future. As winter descends upon us we thought we would take a moment and look back, and another to look forward. It is impossible to look back without gratitude to those who chose Elderslie, and gave us the opportunity to serve. We extend our thanks for what has been, and the invitation to share in what will be.

View More: 2015 was bittersweet as the failure of the blackberry crop became evident by early May. We had little time to mourn before we plunged into decadent short ribs, some lovely kale, and an intoxicating lemon custard with rosemary finish as the Farm Dinners opened our season.

Summer of 2015 dawned wet, wet, and more wet. There were days I watched farm hands picking tomatoes when their shoes would disappear into the mire with a slimy sucking sort of noise as they trudged down the saturated rows picking beautiful ripe, though wet, red, yellow and cherry tomatoes. Despite the rain and the paucity of berries this year the Bramble Cafe was open and served a lovely selection of breakfast items, hot coffee, and a pleasant view over the bramble and Chisolm Creek.  We look forward to opening the cafe Memorial Day weekend, and farm dinners will take place in the early spring with a new kitchen and improvements to our seating areas both outdoors and in.

Fall of 2015 capped the year with a golden brown crust on the Farm Dinner pork belly topping the risotto like the mellow light of fall spilling over the low plateau hills of northern Kansas. Fall saw the maturation of a full crop of blackberry canes that, should they survive winter’s torments, promise a wonderful season for berry-picking in 2016. 

Elderslie Sawmill and Fine Woodworks
The woodworkers are hard employed in the fabrication of elements and finished products. Our inventory of live edge slabs is building with end uses this year to include bar tops, coffee tables, dining tables, and stair treads. Logs have been harvested from around central Kansas; it promises to be another great year with burr oaks coming from Belleville, walnuts from Douglas, silver maple from near Whitewater, and a massive sycamore bole from the city of Wichita.

Flickr Photos

Autumn Descends

Autumn settles on Longfield


Merriweather Lewis wrote on his 30th birthday that he felt empty and bereft of accomplishment. That was well after he and the Corps of Discovery had made their amazing journey across the continent. Turning 30 can be tough. But surveying the dawn of autumn this morning, I am encouraged.

Walking among the plants today did bring back to me why one might become disheartened. A blackberry field is as full of pitfalls and peril as John Bunyan’s Vanity Fair. The first I came upon was a flagged plant that we are monitoring for a nasty little bacterial infection that can alter the DNA of the plant and require burning of said plant and sterilization of the soil around it if confirmed.

It is easy when confronted with peril in the morning to despair, and I have had my share of those mornings when it seems no good can come from this day. The next peril on my journey around the field was the site of a repelled intruder. The mole came under the wire webbing but was repulsed before he got to the delicious blackberry plant roots. Catching a mole like this feels a bit like Gandalf standing on the Bridge and shouting to the Balrog “You Shall Not Pass.” We farmers carry strange notions about our work.

Much of farming involves the ability to weigh life in the balance and decide what must live and what must die. Bindweed and crabgrass must die in a blackberry planting and our applications of soap and vinegar seem to be holding it at bay while the sorghum in the aisles is growing tall and shading out any weeds that might try to grow there.

Despite a good deal of peril and death, there is much to hope for as the season changes. The beautiful rains of the season have the field moisture at about 70% capacity as measured by our wonderful little tensiometer, and the understory of perennial grass which will replace the sorghum in the aisles is sprouting nicely. Last of all Nick and Alex got the patch trained up and looking rather lovely from its state of overgrowth last week. So despite all the woes attendant upon the children of men I feel some good may come of it all.

Beer Stein and hatHope can change rather quickly into celebration. Thus as harvest is waning and winter begins to loom, mark your calendars for the annual OKTOBERFEST here at Elderslie on October the 24th from 4- 10pm. This is a family gathering with food, beer, a live band and group dances. If you also sometimes feel the pangs of peril sapping life’s hope, join in the fun and celebrate the bounty of our Creator and the hope of another season. Tickets will be available on the Elderslie website October 7th.

July 20, 2015

It is late July, and while much of the summer is already memory, much remains only hope. The blackberries are post-harvest and the tomatoes are just beginning. It is midsummer in an agricultural state.

Wednesday morning last week I received our foliar analysis giving a clear picture of our fertility situation in the bramble. After two years of low harvests in the blackberries I was eager for 2016 to see the return of the walls of fruit that I well remember from years gone by.

Like Tolkien’s Aragon shouting at the Orc masses about to conquer Helm’s Deep that “dawn is ever the hope of men” farmers stand on the brink of low years, survey their losses and stand defiant to declare “next year is ever our hope.” I could feel that sentiment rising in me all day on Wednesday last as I gathered sulfate of potash, kelp, hydrolized fish, and other nutritional elements.

The end of the day saw the fertigation mixing pump slowly injecting nutrients into the drip lines and sending them out to minister to the bulk soil deficiencies of the plants. After dinner near dark saw me filling our Italian-made sprayer with 35 gallons of water and metering in hydrolized fish, seaweed, potassium, Neem oil, Bacillus thuringensus, and a foliar iron supplement. All geared to satisfy some need to boost the health of the bramble and try to encourage the plants to stay the course and be ready for winter.

Darkness is when the stomata on the leaves relax and nutrients are most able to transfer from a sprayed particulate into the leaf tissue, so in the stillness of the twilight I arrived ready to deliver life to the blackberry plants and death to caterpillars (Bacillus) and infant stage bugs (Neem oil) as we press towards the fruiting year of 2016. The sprayer was carefully calibrated for speed and pressure so that an equal amount of nutrient and material is delivered to the whole bramble; linger too long and you could overdose, too little and it is not worth the time.

7-16-2015 Cima at workRow by row with the heavy rush of the air blast sprayer behind I traveled with the adrenaline thrill of risk known by farmers as they put memories of loss behind them and look forward to next year. Kipling’s words were in my mind “If you can make one heap of all your winnings, and risk it on one turn of pitch and toss…” Travelling through a bramble in the half light with the mist swirling around me and the heavy smell of atomized fish slipping around the mask and reminding me of oysters I was overwhelmed with a pride to be even a small member of the band of men who strive to grow crops.

Then Dad called. The toilets in the big house were clogged. I jumped off the tractor and ran in to help dad wage war using plumbing snake, gloves, and headlamps, chasing a clog through the extensive bowels of the house until 10:30 pm. After a triumphant moment when the pipe finally cleared and all was well, I got back to spraying and finished up by 11 pm and got to bed.

Lying in bed I was very thankful for hope; it sustains, it drives, and in times when it seems that we must be overrun, it gives the strength to rally and contend once more in the dark of night waiting for the dawn.

George Elder