I have seen these bushes in searing heat, in driving rain, and a thousand times as I drive past and walk to and fro. This morning I stopped and looked at the rye grass and radishes carpeting the ground, and at the tresses of berries dusted with snow, and I just stared.
We as Americans, and I am very much an American, have a burning, driving, pushing desire to go, to get there, to complete and move to the next. I think it is tied to the encounter our ancestors had with a land so big that it defied calculation, we got excited, I think we are still a little bit excited. Its why we could build the highway system, and I appreciate that I can drive 75MPH across our nation, but I am mostly thankful that I can go fast so that I get somewhere and get out of the car.
One of the great challenges for us as Americans is to stop going and assume that the places we live are where we will be for most if not all our lives. The world we create should be one of interest, one of joy, one of peace, one of excitement, and one that stops us even after a thousand times seeing it and causes us to just stare at the simple beauty of it all and remember that we need to do a lot of going in our lives, but we may never leave where we are, so tend and dress the land, create spaces and products that are lovely, enduring, and noble, and stop long enough to soak it all in.
In June when I walked the brambles, I measured and I counted and I weighed. I estimated that we would harvest about 30% of what we did in 2017 for total poundage. In early July we had about seven days that felt timeless… where pails were streaming into the field and smiles and laughing children were coming out with overfull pails in droves. During those days I allowed myself to think, “maybe it will be better than I thought, maybe they will find berries I could not count, maybe it will go on like this for weeks.” On Saturday, July 22, we picked our last berries with some old friends, and some new, two small groups glad to scatter out and search the last berries in the bramble. Then it was quiet.
I was not wrong in June, but neither was I wrong in those few days of plenty. It was good, and it was enough. We are too tempted to measure all success by profit – certainly it is a necessary part of endeavor, and must be there else the endeavor fails, but there is more there also. Human endeavor, like a good book, offers us a chance to see the world a bit more clearly, to nurture our nobler sentiments, and see our greatest foibles. Low years in agriculture challenge one’s ability to hope, but as the saints and poets have oft reminded, the greatest loss would be never to have risked, never to have loved, never to have hoped.
Now steel and sweat are at play in the brambles as a team of six people is cutting and tearing and pulling out the canes now empty of fruit. Later in the week they will begin to tress and primp, tease and tuck all the delicate bright new canes into their trellis positions as we prepare for next year. Here in the office I am in discussion with consultants, about the level of boron in our plant tissue, and the % release of nitrogen from chicken manure. They in the field and I in the office are all working towards a goal – a goal of seeing all things made new in the timeless realm of the future that we may or may never see with our mortal eyes, but we believe is there, and we hope is possible to reach.
I have seen the fields thick with blossoms, I have seen fruit so thick the leaves were obscure, I have seen lines of pails trickling out of the gate as if they would never end, and for now that memory will haunt and drive and fill my mind through days of sweat and reeking manure, through nights spraying strange oils to ward off mythical pests, and through winter storms, and sleepless spring nights when the frost settles atop the covered plants and a thin fluttering nylon blanket stands between life and death for the little buds underneath.
Ever has hope triumphed against bitter odds. Ever has mankind needed to risk in order to understand his world, and ever have farmers needed hope to sow after a small harvest. So as I settle into the rhythms of the late summer, I am thankful for the few days of timeless beauty this year, thankful for each person who joined in the harvest, sorry for each who could not join, and I am hopeful that after long toils and many trials you and I will again see all things made new.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
We 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 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!”
The 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.
Spring 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.