Pizza farms offer reverse twist in farm-to-table movement

Pizza Farm
In this June 24, 2015 photo, Johnny Pavak, right, boxes up a pizza as Tammy Winter, right, brings out another wood-fired oven pizza at the Red Barn Farm near Northfield, Minn. where people gather to relax and enjoy pizza.
Jim Mone | AP

As the farm-to-table movement connects more consumers with local farmers, some farms have shortened the distance between the plow and the plate. They're inviting customers over for pizza.

On Wednesday nights when the weather is nice, Pat and Tammy Winter serve well over 200 pizzas to guests at their Red Barn Farm near Northfield, about an hour south of Minneapolis. Customers make a picnic out of it, setting up chairs and tables outside the 101-year-old barn and packing in soda, beer and wine. Children chase the chickens and pet the horses while their families wait for pizzas to emerge from wood-fired ovens.

Tammy and Pat Winter
In this June 24, 2015 photo, Tammy and Pat Winter pose at their 10-acre Red Barn Farm near Northfield, Minn. where people gather to relax and enjoy pizza. Pizza farms, particularly popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin, provide small farms with extra income and city dwellers with opportunities to get in touch with their food sources.
Jim Mone | AP

While pizza farms have sprouted across the country as agritourism grows, they're particularly popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where they provide small farms with extra income and city dwellers with opportunities to get in touch with their food sources. Farmers and diners alike appreciate that the pizza toppings often were grown or produced onsite.

Most farms keep things simple by requiring guests to bring their own napkins, plates and utensils, and to take their garbage home. They may offer limited, if any, beverages. But this isn't about fine dining; it's about a dining experience, and one that often boasts an unbeatable pastoral setting.

Pizza Farm
Pat Winter takes out a pizza from the wood-fired oven.
Jim Mone | AP

"It's fun to get people back out to the country," Pat Winter said.

For small farmers with an entrepreneurial spirit, diversification is a useful strategy for growing their businesses, said Greg Schweser, an expert on sustainable local food systems with the University of Minnesota Extension. Diversification can mean agritourism, such as selling pizza or hosting visitors for overnight farm stays, he said. Farm wineries already do a lot of those sorts of things, he noted. And farms that have to add commercial kitchens to comply with regulations also can use them to produce products -- such as jams and baked goods -- they can sell in the offseason, he said.

"Direct sales to consumers, that's the best way to capture the most value for the dollar," he said. "There's no middleman. There's no wholesalers. That's how small farmers are making it."

Terra Carey and Kara Denney of Minneapolis recently dined at Red Barn Farm. They had eaten at other pizza farms and knew the drill. They spread a blanket next to the vegetable garden, opened a bottle of rose wine, and spent time relaxing before savoring their pizzas -- one with olives, tomato and fresh basil, another with locally-made sausage and the Winters' own sauerkraut.

Pizza Farm
Students from St. Olaf College sit in a circle as they have pizza on the lawn near the 101-year-old red barn.
Jim Mone | AP

"It tastes like a hot dog in pizza form," Carey said.

The Winters said they weren't looking to get into the pizza business when they bought the 10-acre farm about seven years ago. It found them. He had worked in real estate until the market tanked. She was a baker, and they thought it would be fun to build a brick oven and make pizza. At first they served only family and friends, but it took off. They also turned their barn into a venue for weddings and receptions, events which they cater and have become their main business. Their little general store sells their salsas and breads, as well as eggs from their 60 hens.

Running a pizza farm isn't all idyllic. It takes a lot of hard work and the tenacity to overcome regulatory headaches. While the Winters were able to make the necessary investments, regulations led Dave and Mary Falk of LoveTree Farmstead Cheese near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, to scale back Pizza by the Pond.

The Falks use a sourdough fermented for three days, topped with artisanal cheeses from their sheep and cows, and seasonal Northwoods delicacies such as fiddleheads and wild ramps. But Mary Falk said they're able to open to the public this summer for only three weekend days plus three holidays because of tangles with inspectors. Otherwise they're limited to private parties. To get in, it helps to get accepted into their private Facebook group.

Pizza Farm menu
Hannah Winter explains the pizza menu at the Red Barn Farm owned by her parents.
Jim Mone | AP

"We're pretty bizarre. We warn them -- Ma and Pa Kettle revisited," she said. "We're not manicured. It's pretty rustic."

A pioneering pizza farm is AtoZ Produce and Bakery near Stockholm, Wisconsin, where Robbin Bannen and Ted Fisher open only Tuesdays and spend the rest of the week farming. They've been making pizza for 17 years. Bannen said they never intended it to become such a phenomenon. She worries they're already exposed enough. She wants to protect the experience for existing customers, and keep their workload manageable.

"We do this because we love it," she said. "We don't do this because we want to get rich and we don't do this because we have grandiose ideas of what a farm is."

Pizza nights on a farm offer a fun, festive atmosphere that can help consumers put a face on their food and generate customer loyalty for a farm's other products, said Andrew Bernhardt, a community food systems specialist with University of Wisconsin Extension.

"They're selling an experience by letting people come to their farm, and I think there are a lot of people out there hungry for this experience," he said.

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