Two weeks ago I was in a gas station in Lincoln County Kansas after two days walking in pursuit of birds along the vast expanse of the blue hills. A man got out of a truck next to me and walked inside. The clerk casually asked him, “have you got all your farming done?” I suppose that is like asking the parent of a 6 year old, “have you got that kid all raised?”
I am tired on a cold day, but I know that I am not done. I know that I wasn’t put on this world to get done. I was put here for the journey, through success and failures, through joys and trials, and at times through rest. We don’t rest because we are done, we rest because we will never be done.
I came across a sketch in my journal from about 30 months ago. I stared at it. I felt a little tired. 30 months ago the seminal idea for the creamery at Elderslie was on paper. Life goes by so fast. Today we are not done, but the story is going on, and soon, within weeks, milk will start running through the veins of our new creamery at Elderslie, as another chapter begins.
This morning at 6:50 my children lost their minds. They went running out the door in their pajamas with no shoes screaming “snow, snow, snow, snow!” They ignored my pleas and my commands for some time until my son came to his senses and said “I am cold. Let me inside.”
But on the way to school a terrible thing happened at 77th Street. The snow became rain. My children were immediately bummed. “We wore our boots and brought mittens! Where is the snow?” Driving back two hours later in the rain a magical thing happened at 77th Street. The rain turned to snow, and even though I have to go to the office, I feel I am in a world small, unique and wonderful with the turn of seasons.
That excitement we have at small turns of weather, and the varied nature of the world around us is why we get excited about Farm to Table, and with each month’s menu guests get a moment to join in the simple excitement of children as the change in season is marked and celebrated.
Tonight Elderslie will open our November Menu with Petit Crepe, White Bean, Beet Raviolo, Roasted Butternut Squash, Romaine, Fennel Steak, Apple Chess Pie and and lovely wines. But, with all the culinary delights that await our guests, the thing I expect to be asked most, is “Can I sit in a dining room with snow?”
I am a son of Adam Smith. I was taught that endeavor is motivated by self-interest and justified by profit. But as I have grown older I feel that is an oversimplification of the human being. Not that Smith was wrong, but that maybe he needed to be blended equal parts with Tolstoy or Wordsworth and taken in balance.
After ten years as a small business I think one of the things that has impressed me most is how complex and personal it is. Many times you won’t really know if the decision is right or wrong. You can’t rely on profit alone to justify it, nor can your self-interest clearly guide a complex decision like “how important are the aesthetics of a wall?” Its just a wall, really, right? I don’t have an answer but reading James Rebanks “The Shepherd’s Life” I found another way to struggle with the topic.
In the Lake District of Northern England farmers still engage in a backwards relic of the medieval age called walling. They spend some allocated portion of their year stacking stones and repairing the walls which are so characteristic of the region and one of its great charms. These walls are impractical. They cost so much in labor, and God help you if you ever had to buy that stone. But this old habit, born partly of necessity since they did not have other materials, is continued because of affection. They love their walls. And if you ever go you will fall in love with the charm of this impractical, archaic, unprofitable way of life.
The most efficient ways of doing things are often not the most lovely. We often seek to justify gruesome aesthetics by pointing at the money it made us or saved us and saying, “look what I have been able to do with that.” Thus we build a harsh and bitter world, which we separate from our lives by distance, by walls, and by habits, and then live in a world where all the aesthetic beauty is only aesthetic and has no function.
I believe there is a deep lesson in walling. There are parts of the world of production which are unavoidably gruesome and unlovely. But we as human beings, moved by affection, can choose to build a world not unprofitable, but less profitable and more lovely. We still need to make a profit, but what if the poets and philosophers are right that humanity exists more in contentedness with simple things than in the accruement of wealth.
In the end we have to make profit. In the end we have to take care of our families and our homes. But in the end I think the question of “how beautiful is the world we are building?” should haunt us each time we build a structure or create a lasting mark on the physical world.
Some days I wonder if creativity is worth the bother. The creation of a thing unique and planned from idea and brought out of the murky realms of our mind into the light is painful, expensive, and tedious.
Local food and local products are not virtuous in themselves; rather they are an opportunity for the expression of a unique sentiment grounded in affection for a place and worked out in the hurly burly of physical creation as a work is built, a product crafted, or paint laid on the canvas. Local products and experiences have to actually convey that affection to the viewer, the customer or the guest and inspire in them a sense of delight.
Thus the idea that Kansas is a place worth living can in the crucible of creativity really give us better beer, better food and unique and wonderful experiences. The value and nobility of these is the responsibility of both the person creating and the person buying. Thought by thought and small purchase by small purchase we are creating the world around us.
Through the fall we offer a menu each month that is served Thursday, Friday and Saturday. It offers five courses that give voice to the season and the soil of Central Kansas. By mid-winter our Creamery will open offering artisan cheeses, cured meats and accompaniments. We believe creativity is worth the bother. We believe unique local establishments can inspire a sense of delight. We believe each of us can make the world around us more lovely and more wonderful.
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.
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.
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.
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.