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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hope 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.