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.
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.
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.
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.