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.
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.