This Kansas Farm Makes the Most of Berries and Goat Milk
Nature’s plate is imperfect. I’ve cooed over twisty carrots. Tasted sunshine in cracked tomatoes. Even begrudgingly flicked green worms from organic sweet corn. That’s the charm, dammit. So I arrived at George and Katharine Elder’s farm in south-central Kansas fully prepared to love their blackberries the way Fern Arable loves her runty piglet Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web—deeply, and with charity. I expected the Elders’ berries to be sweet, yet smallish. I anticipated prickly brambles. I brought a wide hat to protect me from the broad summer sun.
In a word: Ha. Elderslie Farm blackberries are not tiny at all. The biggest ones stretch nearly the length of my palm. They dangle like plump gems from high, angled trellises. (To walk beneath, picking, is to find yourself in a cave that’s so leafy, so laden with fruit, that it borders on hedonic.) You can measure the fruit’s maturity by shades of magenta to ebony, and also by temperament. Young berries cling to the plant, but the ripe, swollen ones slip off agreeably. They are two-bite fruits that drip juice like an August peach—tart, floral, faintly earthy. They know nothing of compromise.
The compromise, George explains, is the clamshell you buy at the store. Brutish and bland, those berries have been bred for long-distance travel. “These U-pick varieties aren’t even grown for the shipping chains,” he says, “because they don’t have enough fiber to hold up. They’re experientially a different berry than anything you can buy.” You must come out here to try them. Way out.
Elderslie Farm is in Kechi, a map dot just north of Wichita. The town used to be a stop on the Chisholm Trail; cattle drives headed to Abilene, Texas, broke for water at the spring below the farm. Kechi hasn’t seen another boom time since. Yet George felt called to eke out a living here, on family land. He initially pursued woodworking. Then his mind turned to fruit.
George is the kind of guy who nods more than he talks. Until I ask why he planted blackberries. He pauses, as if sizing up my interest, then unspools, filling my notebook with climate and soil, crop density and bramble cultures, and a guy in Virginia who breeds for Midwest heat. “I saw a challenge,” he finally says, simply. “And near a metro population, U-pick is an opportunity.”
His wife, Katharine, remembers the first day of picking, in 2012. “I was out to here pregnant with Martha,” she says, stretching arms scarred with oven burns. “George asked me to check people in. I said, ‘I’ll do it, but I’m making scones.’ And that was how this started.” This is the culinary side of Elderslie Farm—a walk-up breakfast-lunch cafe in summer and a cozy restaurant for upscale dinners year-round. A chemist and singer by training, Katharine grew up with epicurean parents who toted home suitcases full of Italian cheese and arborio rice. Today, she and her team turn out some of Wichita’s most creative food, in a space that breathes terroir: Salvaged floor bricks. Cheese boards made of walnut from the creek bottoms. Table legs hewn from old hedgerows.
That all could have been enough. But the Elders have grafted another venture onto the farm’s rootstock. A hundred yards from the cafe, a tribe of goats—not a flock or herd, the Internet tells me—bleats outside a barn. (“Singing their morning greeting,” Katharine says.) In a few minutes, they’ll parade to the dairy, a new building designed to look anything but, with brick walls and a quaint green door.
The goats' milk might become feta, chèvre or, with aging, a firm, nutty Gouda-style cheese. Katharine is also perfecting gelato. During berry season, you can buy a scoop after picking and walk it back across the gravel drive, while grasshoppers leap like popcorn, and a farm cat waits in the shade for the drips.
People will travel for that kind of idyll, just like we’ll pay more to scrub twistier carrots. And that has made places like Elderslie, in towns like Kechi, outside cities like Wichita, possible. “This farm wouldn’t have been here five years ago,” Katharine’s mom and chief Instagrammer, Judith Wencel, says. “And maybe it won’t be here in five more. There’s something fragile about it, but that’s the way a seed is.” On a blazing Tuesday morning, a tractor deposits a wagonload of pickers at the cafe for linzer bars and lemonade. They’re hot and happy. They’ve watered the seed. And their pails are full.
Recipes from Elderslie Farm
Blackberry Lemon Scones
Whole blackberries folded in the dough burst while baking, cracking open Katharine Elder’s sugar-crusted scones like warm, buttery geodes. Get the recipe here.
Katharine Elder includes this jam on charcuterie boards for eating with cheese. It's also perfect for toast, oatmeal, yogurt, waffles or pancakes. Get the recipe here.
Katharine makes her fold-over berry tarts in two sizes: petite for sharing with a friend or pie-size like this, to slice and top with the farm’s goat milk gelato. Get the recipe here.
Farro and Olive Salad
A potluck star is born. This salad gets big flavor and texture from whole-grain farro, salty feta, spinach, arugula and lots of fat green olives. It’s a great barbecue side or hearty enough for a stand-alone meal. Get the recipe here.
Goat Milk Gelato
Katharine’s gelato recipes blend the tang of goat milk with the smooth richness of heavy cream. The flavor is stunning—and easy to re-create at home, since many supermarkets now carry goat milk. Get the recipe for Sweet Cream Goat Milk Gelato here and for Blackberry and Goat Milk Gelato here.
Refreshing, zingy and just a little flamboyant, the Bramble Cafe’s fruity lemonade is a summer favorite. If you like, add a splash of vodka to the glass for a patio cocktail. Get the recipe here.