MONDOVI — Gone are the days of small family farms — the days when most of America grew up on a farm or, at the very least, children had their grandparents’ farm to play freely on and to understand where food comes from.
Stephanie and Andy Schneider had been raising cattle, pigs and sheep on their all-natural, organic meat farm Together Farms in Mondovi for several years. With a “triple bottom line” of people, planet and profits, in that order, they wanted to create something different to foster the farm-to-table connections that had motivated them to start the farm in the first place.
Thus, their summer Burger Night was born.
“It’s a way to bring people out to have this connection with us,” Stephanie Schneider said. “To reconnect with your farm and to see how your food is raised. … It’s a very small minority now (farmers) and so that connection has been lost.”
Now, the event and the Schneider family farm will receive statewide attention, as it’s set to be featured on an episode of “Wisconsin Foodie,” an Emmy-award winning independent series that appears on Wisconsin Public Television documenting stories behind the food we eat.
But it wasn’t always clear that they’d get to where they are now, Schneider said.
While working and living in Madison, the couple had been searching for land for about two years. Nothing within driving distance fit with what they were trying to do.
When her job moved them west, Stephanie and Andy Schneider continued their search. It didn’t take long to find a farm that fit what they were searching for, Stephanie Schneider said, so they placed an offer on a farm in rural Mondovi.
But as they drove down the road, they passed another property — something about it was different. Their other offer was countered, so they backed out and bought the other property. It was fate.
“We got really, really lucky,” Stephanie Schneider recalled of the property, 60 acres with a little house that needed a lot of work. Later, they bought 100 acres next door. “It was very much a diamond in the rough.”
Growing up immersed in her family’s cheese factory, Schneider had always thought she wanted to make cheese. She spent countless hours and thousands of dollars on cheesemaking classes and had almost become a licensed cheesemaker when she had an epiphany.
“Cheesemaking is 90 percent dishwashing and patience, and those are two things I’m not good at,” Schneider said with a laugh, explaining their plan had been to start a sheep dairy and to create a farmstead cheesemaking facility. “I don’t want to be in a room by myself all day — that’s why I’m trying to get out of the cubicle world.”
One thing has remained the same of their goals, however. With a bachelor’s degree in natural resources from Northland College and a master’s degree in environmental science and policy from UW-Green Bay, Schneider always knew she wanted their farm to be all natural.
But executing that isn’t always easy, Stephanie and Andy Schneider quickly learned when they made the move with their two young daughters in 2009.
The Schneiders had been told if they raised it, people would buy it.
“That’s not true at all,” Stephanie Schneider said, laughing and shaking her head.
Although they thought they’d be able to sell their meat at the Eau Claire downtown farmers market, they lost their place.
With few other options in the Chippewa Valley to sell their products until they got their name out there, the Schneiders were forced to turn to the Twin Cities, where they also didn’t know anyone.
Their first few years of farming they faced droughts on top of juggling both of their day jobs and raising two girls.
Eventually they began to use permaculture practices that allowed them to conserve water on their farm and use the land more efficiently.
Maintaining an all-natural farm isn’t easy, Schneider said. Especially when the competition is big corporations, who have more time and resources than small family farmers who usually have to have day jobs as well.
“It’s one thing to know what you should be doing, and it’s another thing to actually do it,” she said.
Schneider thought to herself often about how could they compete with big companies, who claim to be raising their animals ethically, in the same way their farm was. Then, she had an idea.
Thus, Together Farms’ Burger Night — similar to already well-known “Pizza Barns,” but with burgers instead — was born.
“The one thing I can do to make that difference is build that connection with Burger Night,” Schneider said. “No matter how much money they have, they’ll never have enough money to go build a direct relationship with every single one of their customers. So this is our unfair advantage, but it’s really our only unfair advantage.”
On weekends during the summer, the Schneiders invited guests out to their farm for dinner, drinks, live music and, most importantly, a first-hand experience at the farm, on the very land where all the meat was raised.
The menu featured burgers and a bar as well as fries and cheese curds fried in lard. Games were supplied on site, and later into the night guests could wander the property, look at the stars and have campfires.
Children can run and play on the farm while their parents relax with a drink in their hand, Stephanie Schneider said. And that’s a new concept to most families.
“This is a good option if you’ve tried the restaurant thing and it just didn’t really work,” she said.
Their licensing didn’t allow them to make food on site, but that will change, she said.
This summer, they will have a food truck, they’ve hired a professional chef for the farm and they’re adding Thursday night meat raffles and Sunday morning brunch.
“This is a amazing opportunity to really build on the idea of relationships and community and transparency,” Schneider said. “... I want this to be an immersive experience where you leave full, and maybe thinking about things differently than you did before you came here.”
The opportunity to be featured on the program kind of came out of nowhere, she said.
Late one summer night, Stephanie Schneider was awakened by a thunderstorm. She ended up on Facebook and found a post asking “Wisconsin Foodie” viewers where the best burgers in the state could be found.
Stephanie knew just the place, and the farm’s customers also pitched in.
“There were hundreds and hundreds of comments,” Schneider said. “Everyone’s got their favorite burger place, right? But I used our leverage to get their attention.”
Next thing she knew, TV crews and the show’s hosts were on the farm, filming the episode during one of their burger nights.
“We weren’t ready for a TV show to show up all of a sudden,” Schneider said with a chuckle. “But I think it went really well. I think it was a very unique experience for them.”
Arthur Ircink, founder and executive producer of “Wisconsin Foodie,” said he was immediately intrigued by the idea of a burger night at a farm, and Stephanie’s persistence on Facebook.
“Stephanie is just a really dynamic person. She’s phenomenal,” Ircink said. “For somebody in farming, she’s got this really great business sense. She seems like a sign of this new generation of farmers that are young enough to figure out how to best work with chefs and how to work with the media. And, she’s producing some really great food.”
The show also featured The Informalist restaurant in downtown Eau Claire to showcase one of Together Farms’ customers. Amy Huo, a chef at The Informalist, came to mind, as the Schneiders had worked with her practically since the restaurant started.
For Huo, The Informalist’s use of all local and natural food had been important to her from the start — and Together Farms fit with that.
“This sounds really strange, I know, but you start to develop a relationship with all the stuff you work with,” Huo said. “You start to feel the energy of the stuff you work with. For me, it’s really important to know who’s growing our stuff, and to see it and to control all that because that’s where I draw all of my energy from.”
Although “Wisconsin Foodie” typically features chefs that are more often near the Milwaukee area, where they’re based, Ircink said they were excited to give some credit to farmers further away, and Eau Claire.
“It’s not just about chefs — it’s about farmers, too, who are doing such hard work and producing such a great product,” he said. “They don’t usually get that credit. I hope that we can give a little love to the Eau Claire area and to Together Farms and chef Amy. ... It seems like there’s a lot going on with restaurants and there’s a lot of energy (in Eau Claire).”
Ultimately, Stephanie Schneider hopes the episode draws attention to their little farm, as well as all that the Chippewa Valley has to offer.
“I’m hoping that ‘Wisconsin Foodie’ will help us to find our tribe and, of course, help us with cash flowing and trying to start a restaurant on a farm,” Schneider said. “Which is really risky when we’re out in the middle of nowhere.”
Although The Informalist no longer buys products from Together Farms, a viewing party will be at the Dive bar inside The Lismore Hotel from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday.
The episode airs at 7:30 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television.