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Like starting over: Farms that offer dining scramble amidst pandemic

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.”

For more information about Suncrest Gardens Farm, visit https://suncrestgardensfarm.com or call 608-626-2122. To order pizza, visit https://store.suncrestgardensfarm.com

To contact The Stone Barn, call 715-673-4478 or email information@thenelsonstonebarn.com. For more information, visit www.thenelsonstonebarn.com.

For more information about Together Farms, visit www.togetherfarms.com, call 715-210-4740 or email stephanie@togetherfarms.com.

Bouncing through quarantine

When life gives you a pandemic, buy a trampoline.

Said no one ever.

Except my wife, who a month into the safer-at-home order, decided it was the most expedient way to persuade our children to get a little fresh air.

“Isn’t it also the most expedient way to get a broken arm?” I asked.

But after a month of being sardined alongside one another, we decided it was worth the risk.

To say that assembling a trampoline was more difficult than I expected would be an understatement. To say that it involved no four-letter words would be a lie. But it was all worth it to see my children’s smiling faces, which I observed from some newly earned distance.

Thanks to the trampoline, social distancing became easier for the kids. When trapped within its cage-like net, there was little chance of them coming into contact with anyone. An added benefit was that the trampoline allowed them to practice social distancing from their parents. After one particularly trying day of “home schooling,” they rolled their jampacked suitcases to their new bouncy home and promised they’d check in at Christmas. We wished them well, and then, 15 minutes later, enjoyed our grand reunion.

Yes, it was a happy time in our household — right up until my son’s symptoms emerged.

It started with a fever, then a cough, then a few other ailments that checked off the boxes we feared. My son took it in stride, though my wife and I didn’t. Under “normal” circumstances, such complaints would have hardly registered on our parental radars, but these were different times. We called the Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, and after an intensive pre-screening process, were told to take Henry to the drive-thru testing tent in the converted lot to the right of the hospital.

We masked up, then made the short trip to the tent, where we were greeted by a police officer whose job it was to tell us to keep our windows rolled up. Next, a health care worker held up a sign informing me to call a particular phone number, which routed me on to the next health care worker in the lineup.

“Hello,” said the health care worker on the other end, “I’m right here in the tent.”

Sure enough, the woman waved to us. What a comfort to see her masked face, and to know that someone just a few feet away would guide us through this journey. My son’s health wasn’t being outsourced to some medical call center half a country away; it was being handled locally, by a person who, were it not for her mask, I might recognize. She walked us through the process, then said, “If he tests positive, we’ll give you a call. If he’s negative, you’ll receive an email. Any questions?”

Since most of my questions were existential in nature, I simply thanked her for her time. And then, we pulled into the tent, where we were greeted by our final medical professional of the morning, this one protected behind a face shield. I rolled down the window to the appropriate level.

“Hi Henry,” the man said. “Could you sit on your Dad’s lap, please?”

Unbuckling, Henry climbed over the console.

Then, the man explained that he would soon insert a cotton swab into Henry’s nasal cavity.

“Will it hurt?” Henry asked.

“It won’t,” the man assured.

He was right; it all happened so fast there was no time for pain.

For the next 12 hours, Henry and I self-isolated from the rest of the family and prayed the phone wouldn’t ring. We whittled away the hours staring out the window as his little sister bounced carefree on the trampoline.

Suddenly the fear of a broken arm seemed trivial.

Was I scared? Absolutely. But not just of the virus. Equally troubling was what the virus had already revealed about who we are as Americans. That we would imperil our own lives for a day at the beach is bad enough, but that we would also imperil the lives of others to ensure our good time was nothing short of a moral reckoning.

It’s worth mentioning that most of our citizens aren’t at the beach. And that those who have been spared the physical toll of the virus are potentially paying a different price. To those who’ve lost jobs, my heart goes out to you. To those who have jobs but can’t work, I feel for you too. I don’t want anyone to lose a business, or a home, or a paycheck. I also don’t want anyone to lose a father, or a daughter, or a friend.

Many of us have been led to believe that we must have it one way or the other. While such a false dilemma does much to rally a base, it does little to heal a nation. Or, more pressing, find a solution that protects both our lives and our livelihoods. After losing over 70,000 Americans, we’ve passed the point of pretending that our actions don’t directly impact the people around us. What we do matters. Always, but especially now.

As I’ve observed, the same principle holds true on a trampoline. One child’s bounce alters the others’ bounce. If the bounces are ill-timed, the kids disrupt each other. But when timed right, both kids are propelled higher than either could have managed on their own.

Just before bed, my wife received the email.

“Negative!” she shouted. “It’s negative!”

Leaping from their beds and springing through the back door, my son and daughter reunited in a dogpile on the trampoline.

“We did it!” they shouted, though, in fact, they had done nothing to ensure this outcome.

Yet in doing nothing, they were doing everything that was asked of them. Day after day, they jump on their trampoline, they put up with their parents, and they keep everyone safe.

Tightening my bathrobe, I climbed onto the trampoline alongside them.

“Ready?” I asked.

“Ready!” they said.

Together, we sent ourselves soaring — defying gravity for as long as the world would allow.

This is the 100-year-old barn in Clyman owned by John and Kelly Pfister, which was destroyed in a fire on Saturday, April 25. The barn was a special gathering place for friends and family throughout the years.

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Pasture walk season in limbo

As spring rolls out across the state, so too does pasture walk season — usually.

But current plans to hold the pasture walks that give farmers the opportunity share observations and learn from demonstrations are, like many other events, in a wait-and-see holding pattern as organizers await news of whether they will be able to continue with the events safely.

“Everything’s kind of put on hold,” said Rachel Bouressa, grazing planner for Golden Sands Resource Conservation and Development and a GrassWorks board member.

Mary C. Anderson, president of River Country Resource Conservation and Development, said that going forward for them, a lot is dependent on what happens over the next few weeks, with decisions on if or how to proceed with pasture walks this season to be made by the end of the month.

River Country generally starts holding pasture walks in April and May but has shelved the pasture walks they had planned for those months since the “safer at home” order directed by Gov. Tony Evers was put in place. Due to the order, River Country also had to postpone its annual meeting, which will now be planned for fall.

Golden Sands hadn’t quite officially set their pasture walk season when the order went into place, Bouressa said, but they have had to postpone at least one other event planned for this spring until fall.

There’s hope that GrassWorks’ annual picnic may be able to continue as scheduled for July 25, Bouressa said, but planning still has to be done.

Pasture walks, as outdoor events, might be among the first to be OK’d when restrictions begin to ease, Bouressa said, but other options, such as further season delays or virtual options, are also being considered.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began and “safer at home” orders have been put in place, many events have fairly successfully transitioned to virtual formats, but applying that to pasture walks may be more difficult.

While grazing groups have been looking at which virtual options may be available to them and have even considered the feasibility of setting up mobile hot spots in pasture to provide Wi-Fi access, Bouressa said, technological hurdles would have to be crossed and a lot would still be lost from the in-person experience.

Without in-person pasture walks, farmers would lose the in-the-field experience of actually seeing what is going on at a particular farm, Anderson said.

Farmers, in addition missing out on hands-on experiences and a sense of camaraderie, could also wind up “missing out on quality conversations,” Bouressa said.

The kind of group discussion that defines many pasture walks would be harder to do virtually, Anderson said.

That has further implications on fulfilling the mission of pasture walks because “the heart of a pasture walk is farmers learning from each other,” Anderson said.

“Staring at screens is not the same as walking in the fresh air,” Bouressa said.

With COVID-19 spreading during a busy farming time, farmers may also be less motivated to give up the part of the day they would otherwise use on a pasture walk for a virtual experience, Bouressa said.

Still, farmers can benefit from information being shared even if its in a virtual format, and those options can be set up to be accessible at times farmers are less likely to be busy with the rest of their work. GrassWorks has been working with other organizations to set up different online options for farmers to get the answers they’re looking for, Bouressa said.

“Ask a Grazier” online discussions have been held as biweekly Zoom meetings.

A Google group (groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/grassworks-ask-a-grazier) and a Facebook group (www.facebook.com/groups/550684955557954) have also been established for graziers to have their questions answered.

Anderson said that River Country was just starting to look at virtual options as a possibility but was going to follow GrassWorks lead because of the educational webinars GrassWorks had already done.

But even if pasture walks can begin in-person later this year or if suitable virtual alternatives are found, grazing has begun in parts of the state, and farmers are still going to miss the pasture walks and topics that might otherwise be covered at this time of year.

“Some windows of opportunity have been lost because of the seasonality of the topic,” Anderson said.

Farms that had volunteered to host early season pasture walks and couldn’t may be able to later in the season with another topic, though, Anderson said.

“There’s a million topics to cover,” Bouressa said, noting that planned topics may have to be adjusted anyway due to the nature of a season — for example, if it is cool and wet compared to if it is warm and dry.

Future updates on pasture walk seasons can be found on the RCDs websites and Facebook pages.

River Country will send emails to a list of previous pasture walk attendees, too.

Bouressa said that she and UW-Extension Iowa County Agriculture Agent Gene Schriefer are also available to provide more information on pasture walk plans.

Additionally, GrassWorks compiles pasture walks and other events from several groups on its website, grassworks.org.