For the past several years a growing number of farmers have added on-farm dining opportunities, allowing customers to visit the farm, order a meal and sit down to enjoy that meal in a peaceful, rural setting.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many farmers are being forced to find alternative ways to serve customers while keeping money coming into the farm.
With many of these farms opening their seasons in May, farmers are scrambling to sort out the details of how things are going to work, for at least the first few weeks of serving.
“We feel like, in some ways, we’re starting over,” said Marcy Smith, owner of The Stone Barn in Nelson, where they have offered wood-fired pizzas on weekends for 15 years. “There are so many unknowns, but we are preparing ourselves and preparing our staff.”
In previous years, The Stone Barn, S685 County Road KK, Nelson, has been open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May through October. To start this year, they are offering carry-out only on Saturdays and Sundays.
Smith was hopeful people would make the drive to the farm for pizza, but she said many of their customers come from Eau Claire, Rochester, Minn., and the Twin Cities and are coming not only for the food but the atmosphere as well.
“We’ve had good response to our Facebook posts about our plans,” she said. “Sometimes that means they’ll come out, but it’s a long way to travel for take-out.”
This is the start of the third year of Burger Night on the Farm at Together Farms near Mondovi. Owner Stephanie Schneider said attendance at the year’s first Burger Night on the Farm the first weekend in May was a little disappointing, but attendance in May typically depends a lot on the weather and customers’ schedules prior to the Memorial Day weekend.
Together Farms, W93 Norden Road, Mondovi, is alternating weekends in May between offering burgers using their grass-fed beef on the farm and at the Brewing Projekt in Eau Claire, where they offer carry-out from the food truck in the parking lot of the brewery.
Even with the additional dining options available in the city, Schneider said customers seem reluctant to come out due to concerns about COVID-19. However, she said, meat sales have been going well.
“With the weekends at the Brewing Projekt, it’s going OK. It’s doing well enough to pay the bills,” Schneider said. “But if things can’t fully open, I don’t know what the fate of burger night is.”
Schneider said Together Farms is following all Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection regulations for operating while the state’s safer-at-home restrictions are in place, but that it can be difficult to hash out exactly what rules are for an on-the-farm dining business.
Once restrictions begin to ease a bit, Schneider said she is hoping to provide options for diners to make sure they feel comfortable on the farm, even if it’s in limited numbers.
“If they want to wear masks; if they want to take their food to go; we put one of our picnic tables way up at the top of the hill, so you’re being very socially distant at that point,” Schneider said.
“We want to make sure everyone is comfortable and safe and give them options so they can manage their risks a little bit.”
Once restrictions ease a little bit more, Schneider is hopeful Together Farms can get back to offering bar access and music. For the time being, they are giving customers a voucher for future beer purchases with their orders.
“That’s our way of buying everyone a drink for sticking with us through this situation,” Schneider said. “Right now, the ‘together’ in Together Farms is missing.”
Suncrest Gardens Farm, S2257 Yaeger Valley Road, Cochrane, has made pizza available to order in their online store and asked that orders be placed any time during the week before when the order would be picked up at the farm. Pizzas could be picked up near the barn or delivered to the customer’s car.
Suncrest Gardens Farm owner Heather Secrist said they had originally planned to only offer Saturday pick-up, but demand was great enough that they added a Sunday option as well.
“We’re learning as we go and being kind of flexible,” Secrist said. “Being small and able to adjust on the fly is kind of an advantage.”
Secrist said taking orders all week allows them to make sure they have enough staff on hand to cover pizza-making responsibilities on the weekend, but it’s created a little more computer work than would be usual, having to follow up online orders with emails confirming pick-up times.
Another advantage of moving ordering online has been exposing customers to more of what the farm has to offer. As well as finding pizza in the online store, customers see the farm has soups, pasture-raised meats and fruits and vegetables available for sale.
“I’ve been looking for silver linings everywhere I can find them. It makes me feel better,” said Secrist, who has been offering pizza on the farm for 15 years. “This is a nice way to expose people to what we do best on the farm.”
At The Stone Barn in Nelson, Smith said they would be taking orders via email or allowing customers to call ahead or call in once they arrive at the farm. They would accept cash or checks, or people could pull up close to the barn, where they have a Wi-Fi signal, to pay with credit cards.
Smith said, in addition to pizzas, The Stone Barn does still plan to have ice cream available to go as well. Their pizzas are made using herbs grown on the farm and, Smith said, they try to source many of their other ingredients from nearby farmers.
“We are just trying to help everybody out as much as we can,” she said. “We’re all going through some difficult times.”
Despite restrictions and the uncertainty about how comfortable customers would be visiting the farm for carry-out pizza, Smith said they were looking forward to offering the farm’s pizza for the summer again.
“We’re feeling a little anxious, but we’re ready to get going,” Smith said. “All we can do is hope for the best in a tough situation.”