Farm to Table
When George and Alexis Elder first completed their degrees from Clemson University — George in English and history, Alexis a few years later in English and horticulture — they found themselves at that familiar crossroads in life: Where do we go from here? For siblings George and Alexis, though, this was OK. They could always go home to find their way, so home they went — to the Valley Center, Kansas, farm that had been in their family for decades and to the family who welcomed their return.
It was about three years ago that Elderslie Farm, the business, began to take shape. George’s father had always kept horses, but the hobby had never progressed further than that. Then George decided to convert the old hay shed into a lumber mill, and the Elderslie Farm sawmill was born. Specializing in regionally significant species like black walnut, white oak, red cedar and Osage orange — the latter of which is particularly meaningful to folks who grew up in Kansas, its deep orange color requiring no stain to create a rich and inviting focal point for any room — the sawmill is an endeavor George is passionate about.
“I knew I had to do something with my hands,” he said during a tour of the property on a fall afternoon. With his family’s support, he was able to work part time as a teacher while he did his homework, interviewing other farmers in the region and figuring out what he needed to make his dream farm business a reality. Woodworking had always been a part of George’s life, his father having passed along this craft when he was just a young boy, so the mill and adjoining carpentry shop were natural extensions of a lifelong interest.
In order to make the business profitable, with a niche market of small, local contractors, furniture makers, and anyone else interested in the unique and handcrafted, George knew he had to think bigger — but not bigger in a way that compromised the quality of his work.
“I think of the mill and carpentry business as an opportunity to celebrate where we are and the things that are around us, and the craftsman, which is something I think is hard because it’s not cheap. But when you think about the places we love best, they’re where people sacrificed a great deal to create something beautiful. We try to offer that as a service.”
Diversity thus became the name of the game as the farm business expanded into the densely grown, high-value crops of blackberries, strawberries and raspberries, a market George’s early research suggested would do quite well given the farm’s close proximity to the Wichita metropolitan area. An acre or two of these crops direct marketed “are not going to sustain you,” George said, “but if you do it right, you’ll have three to four intense months, and then you’ll have something else to balance it.”
While the carpentry and mill work are certainly part of “doing it right,” providing that much needed balance in the off months, finding a way to differentiate the Elderslie Farm berry operation from the others in the area has also been integral to their success. “We didn’t feel there was any need to sell produce cheap, especially since we wanted to do organic practices.” So in typical Elder fashion — if one can deduce such a thing from a refreshingly clear commitment to the special and unique — they sought to make the sale of their berries as much about an experience as the actual fruits themselves. Because 75 percent of their berries are sold to you-pick customers, they knew they had to make the farm appealing as an overall destination if they were to entice the highest number of participants from the nearby Wichita area.
“Most of the people come out with their kids and want to have a delightful summer morning,” George said. So to make sure customers get what they come for, they are greeted with not only a nicely manicured blackberry bramble, much of which is cleverly trellised to provide easy access to the bulk of the rich, ripe fruit, but also a full breakfast spread featuring a variety of homemade and homegrown goodies.
“It works wonderfully that my wife, Katharine, is inclined toward culinary things,” George said. And the fact that his sister, Alexis, has in the last year created a thriving Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program from just 1 acre of cultivated land on the property only adds to the total package: a family unit working together as they utilize their unique strengths to create a business that is nothing short of exceptional.
The perfect culmination of this model, though, has to be their on-farm dinners — featuring Katharine’s creatively simple twists on the classics using George and Alexis’ sustainably grown produce — as well as furniture milled and crafted by George’s own hands on the property. Each spring and fall, the Elders invite folks out for a few cozy evenings of good conversation, delightful food, and an overall charming experience.
“We love to have people out and share the best parts of the season,” George said. And as far as many are concerned, they have every reason to celebrate. The business is still a work in progress, but what worthy lifelong endeavors aren’t?
To learn more about this budding farm business on the outskirts of Wichita, visit the Elderslie Farm website.
Try Alexis Elder’s delicious Chipotle Sauce Recipe With Blackberries.
You can read more about Assistant Editor Sarah Sinning’s time at Elderslie Farm, with a review of their most recent farm dinner, on her blog.