Elderslie Farm Values Sustainability and Respect for Land and Animals
By Melody Spurney
At Elderslie Farm, sustainable practices are rooted in respect – for the land, the animals, the people who care for both, and food itself.
The inspiration to build Elderslie Farm into the multi-faceted business it is today started early for both George and Katharine Elder. George was born in the farmhouse that is now home to the restaurant, and he grew up watching his parents’ affection for the land. Although it wasn’t a working farm at the time, George’s parents were dedicated to the land and stewardship, which influenced his perspective about what’s important, how to care for the land, how to care for animals, and what to eat. Katharine said George went to college intending to return to the farm and earn a living there.
“He grew up on this land. He was taught to respect it. He very intentionally pursued a career making a life out of it,” she said.
Katharine, who is the head chef and leads the hospitality portion of the business, found a passion for food as a child. She said she grew up in a very “culinary-interested” family that enjoyed cooking. She remembered having friends over to play and not having ready-made snacks to offer.
“There was nothing in our house that you could just eat. You had to make it all. There was no grab-and-go food in my upbringing – except maybe carrots,” she said.
Katharine recalled not having much cash on hand in college, so she didn’t buy much meat. As a result, her cooking became very “vegetable-centric,” which continues to resonate on the restaurant menu today. During that time, she also learned how unifying food can be.
“When I was cooking on my own, my most natural way of connecting with people was at the table. Any augmented or pivotal moment of the human experience very often involves food. It is the great equalizer, and if you can provide substance behind that for people, I think it is really exciting,” she said.
George had already returned to the farm when he and Katharine married 11 years ago. He and his sister, Alexis, had planted a blackberry bramble and were anticipating their first good yield. When he asked Katharine to help check in guests for blackberry picking, she balked and expressed a desire for more to do. From that, the Bramble Cafe was born, which is still open seasonally.
George sensed that Katharine was perhaps unsettled on the farm at first. She had relatives in Milan, Italy, and had grown up visiting them a few times a year and still enjoyed traveling.
“Very early in our marriage, George said to me point blank, ‘If you spent as much time and energy making this somewhere you would want to be, and somewhere other people want to be, as you do trying to get away, you might be surprised,’” Katharine said. She accepted the challenge.
Soon after, Alexis began growing seasonal vegetables on an acre nearby. Katharine started serving dinners at the farm to showcase the vegetables. Alexis eventually stopped growing vegetables, but the restaurant’s philosophy to serve seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients remains the same.
“There was a sense of urgency to find growers. We had to make sure that this didn’t end,” she said.
Katharine settled in, appreciating the invitation to celebrate the farm that her in-laws had extended. In addition to the blackberries and restaurants, the farm also has woodworks and a sawmill where George continues to create furniture and other items from the local timber he harvests. It also has a small herd of goats. His mom was the original cheesemaker at Elderslie and specialized in rustic farmstead feta.
In the Neighborhood
The 160-acre farm is split between two 80-acre properties in the Sunnydale community between Valley Center and Kechi. After Alexis stopped growing vegetables, Katharine connected with other growers, including some nearby farmers such as Strong Roots Healthy Farming in Valley Center and Chisholm Creek Flowers, located virtually next door.
Katharine said she has close relationships with about 11 growers and uses others when the need for additional ingredients arises. She estimates that 80 percent of her food is sourced within a 50-mile radius of the farm. Although the farm isn’t officially certified organic by the USDA, Katharine said they follow organic practices and choose food from growers that do the same.
“I watch my spouse day in and day out digging into the reality of land management and holistic living, treating animals with respect and dignity, and making sure that what the customer is getting actually matches the perception,” she said.
That is why Katharine says she focuses on quality seasonal ingredients that are well-grown and well-cared for, not just local. “Seasonal and local does not necessarily imply carefully grown, organically grown, and well-tended,” she said.
Katharine said there are biological factors at play regarding the seasonality of food. For example, butternut squash is in season in late fall and has a high sugar content that helps warm the body.
“That’s why it’s not ready until October. It’s about to get cold. That’s also why you want to eat a light, bright, watery tomato in the summer. In the same way, if you eat heavy food in the summer, it is miserable,” she said.
The restaurant menu usually changes about every six weeks and is dictated by her core group of growers, including Strong Roots Healthy Farming, Orie’s Farm Fresh, and Firefly Farm. She said there are a lot of back-and-forth conversations when it comes to menu planning. For example, a grower may have a crop come in and reach out to Katharine, or Katharine may have a seasonal dish in mind and reach out to a grower.
Despite being known as the Breadbasket of America, the weather in Kansas and other factors can make the state a challenging location for sustainable, seasonal farming.
“It is hard to grow good food in Kansas. Summers are hot, and winters are cold. Often the voice of the grower is just lost because we live life so fast,” she said.
Katharine said it could be alarming to realize what goes on behind the scenes in the food industry.
“Traditional farming has succeeded in efficiently creating low-cost food. Creating a best-in-class food system substantially reduces chemical use, prioritizes soil health and nutrient density, preserves ecological diversity, and values animal and worker quality of life. And this requires that farmers be compensated on more than just bushels delivered. Farmers can do this, but consumers have to create the demand,” she said.
Katharine said marketing is a significant part of why change may be so slow.
“In the dairy aisle, many brands use images of red barns, green pastures, animals frolicking in meadows, or stories of small family farms. These images and stories are often not entirely transparent since many of those animals live in facilities on concrete from birth to death. If marketing teams were asked to clearly state things like, ‘Raised in a confined man-made
environment,’ it is possible consumers might be more dedicated to higher quality. This shift has begun in eggs very significantly because the confinement systems became so darkly brutal in a race to produce them cheaply. Cage-free eggs became viable even at 2 and 4 times the cost,” she said.
“You have to do a lot of homework to know what you are putting in your body or what you are putting on your table. Part of my job as a chef is to disburden the customer from the obligation of trying to figure out what is in the food,” she added.
Sense of Place
Katharine’s experiences in Italy have helped influence her relationship with food and a sustainable future.
“In Northern Italy, an identity piece that necessitates care for one’s body, the land, the ingredients, and these things are celebrated. It is just part of how they do life,” she said.
By contrast, Katharine said Americans tend to live quickly in the moment without much of a sense of place or thought given to our long-term impact.
“As a culture, I think it is very easy to equate success with getting what you want all the time and instant gratification. In terms of what we are doing and why we are doing it, we care for the land and do not burden future generations with the residual effects of our selfishness. That is very important to practice. As Americans, we forget that we will be here for a significantly shorter period than our impact,” she said.
Valuing the land, animals, and caring for self is something that George and Katharine are working to teach their children, Martha, 10, and Oliver, 7. Katharine said that generations could no longer assume they will do better than their parents, but she is noticing that consumer-driven culture may be starting to shift. Particularly post-COVID, she sees people more interested in slowing down for experiences.
“It won’t be quite so hard if, as an adult culture, we can demonstrate to the next generation how to say, ‘I don’t actually need that. I have a sweater. I have a pair of shoes. I have eaten enough,’” she said.
Katharine sees inherent value in treating land and animals with respect and perpetuating that within society.
“It is way more expensive, and it does not make economic sense if you are just looking at a balance sheet within a business. But I think the very real, rooted, ‘Why are we here, and what are we doing here?’ is informed by living a life with animals,” she said.
A Relationship with Food
Katharine learned as a child that food brought joy.
“It wasn’t a stuffy elevation of the table, but it was a celebration of food culture and a dedication to presenting these things well and a pride in where you are from, as well as a generational perception of yourself in time,” she said of eating in Italy.
She carries this philosophy to her current work in the restaurants and on the farm.
“One of the most rewarding things for me is providing respite and peace in other people’s lives and being able to do that while taking and synthesizing George’s work and sharing it. I might be the chef, have the restaurant, and plate the food just so. But I’m also able to give a voice to George’s work, and beyond him, each of the growers,” she said.
Elderslie Farm continues to grow and widen its footprint in the Wichita community. The goat herd will expand early this spring with the anticipated arrival of more than 100 baby goats, which will keep the animal care team busy. The creamery and dairy have recently been renovated and support The Market Shop at the farm.
Elderslie, the farm’s flagship restaurant, is open on Friday and Saturday evenings by reservation. Everyday by Elderslie recently opened in Bradley Fair, and Katharine expects to open a restaurant space in the Wichita Art Museum, 1400 by Elderslie, in March.
Traditional farm activities, including picking blackberries in the 1.5-acre bramble and the seasonal opening of the Bramble Cafe, will come in the summer.
Meanwhile, the Elders’ children are getting used to helping on the farm.
“They are everywhere. Martha is chief baby goat catcher. She adores the animals. Her tenderness for the goats is unmatched. She can run the cafe cash register as well as any employee. And Oliver is very content to play with whoever shows up,” Katharine said.
As the family and farm employees prepare for a busy growing season, Katharine said she is happy reflecting on the evolution of the farm to a place that brings joy not only to her family but others as well.
“If you focus too much on what’s next, you don’t settle in and hone what you are actually doing. If you’re always looking to the next pasture, the next thing, you forget to take care of what’s right here,” she said.