GROWING COMMUNITY AT PIZZA FARMS ACROSS THE DRIFTLESS
BY MAGGIE SONNEK
Mention the term ‘pizza farm’ outside of the Midwest and you might be met with a quizzical look. But here in the Driftless, these agricultural treasures have become a seasonal staple.
For a couple of nights a week, a family farm is transformed into a pizza cookout, encouraging visitors to enjoy some of the farm’s freshest crops while dining al fresco, on blankets spread out under a big rural sky (or cozied up in a barn, should it rain).
Maren Beard, of Decorah’s Luna Valley Farm – one of the newest to the Driftless pizza farm scene (read about them soon!) – paints the picture: “While you wait for your pizza (which in the summer may take over an hour), experience the beauty of the valley, reconnect with old friends, and greet the farm animals as you walk around field roads and pastures. Wander back to the barn where you can watch pizzas cooking in the wood fired oven (one of them is yours!), then bring your pizza over to your picnic blanket, which just happens to be next to a few friends, and crack open the box. When you take your first bite, you just might think to yourself, ‘Now that’s how food is supposed to taste.’”
Indeed, pizza farms provide an idyllic dining experience, and as an added bonus, customers are given the rare opportunity to see food at its simplest, freshest form.
There are multiple benefits – beyond the obvious -– to the farmers as well. Not only is it a great way to supplement income during this trying agriculture climate, pizza nights can help ease some of the biggest challenges for farmers: perishable products and delivery. Rather than rushing to get fresh produce to the customer’s table, pizza nights bring the customer to the table (or blanket)…right at the farm.
While the five pizza farms we featured here all differ from one another, they all have (at least) one thing in common: a deep connection to the land and community.
A to Z Produce and Bakery
N2956 Anker Ln., Stockholm, WI
Owners: Ted Fisher and Robbi Bannen
Season: May 1 – October
Tuesdays, 4:30-8 pm
House favorite: Any of the pesto options
When Ted Fisher and Robbi Bannen, owners of A to Z Produce and Bakery in Stockholm, Wisconsin, fired up their brick oven for their very first pizza 20 years ago, they looked out at their farm. Scattered about were mostly friends and family, lots of them from the area; all with a connection to farm life.
Today, though, Robbi says the demographic has changed dramatically. Most travel long distances, often from larger cities, to slow down – if only for a night. A to Z is so popular, two-hour waits for the bubbly, Neopolitan-style pizza are not unusual – and often part of the fun!
“People long for connection. And there’s no greater connection than the land,” says Robbi. “I don’t expect people to come here yearning for that verbally and mentally. But real work and real dirt under your feet is grounding.”
The husband and wife team are familiar with that work and dirt. They cut the wood for their oven, grind the grain for their flour, and mix the dough for their bread – mainly because they enjoy the process, and it culminates in their offerings: CSA. Pizza. Bread. All “made where it’s grown since 1998.”
When it comes to pizza farms, many consider Ted and Robbi the founders of the movement, though Robbi says she got the idea from a farm in Iowa that used a brick oven in a small commercial kitchen.
“We didn’t have a scheme or a plan,” she says. “We just had a crazy passion to be more connected to food.”
The Stone Barn
S685 Co Rd KK, Nelson, WI
Owners: Matt & Marcy Smith,
Amber Smith, & Anne Magratten
Season: May 18 – October
Fridays, 5-9 pm; Saturdays,
4-9 pm; Sundays, 12-8 pm
Alaskan Pizza – Smoked salmon, onions, dill and capers on a cream cheese base
During the school year, Matt and Marcy Smith, owners of The Stone Barn, teach at the local high school. But come May, they trade in their curriculum for chefs’ knives. They bought the farm, land, and residence two years ago after the original owners – friends of theirs – moved to Arizona. But they’re not new to the scene; Matt spent his summers cooking in the Stone Barn kitchen while Marcy bartended. But now, as owners, they say it’s been exciting to see their new venture come alive. They serve up rectangular, Italian-style thin crust pizzas, cut into squares. “People are everywhere, sitting on blankets, walking around,” says Marcy. “It’s just surreal.”
On site, there’s an old granary store that sells Stone Barn-branded apparel, local artwork and pottery, and homemade maple syrup, and on another part of their property is a fully renovated barn for weddings and special events. (Photos courtesy The Stone Barn)
Blossom Hill Orchard and Farm
645 US 52, Preston, MN
Owners: Hillary and Dane Diede
Season: May 18 – September 1
Saturdays, 5-9 pm
House favorite: Mad Farmer Pizza – Goat cheese, arugula and kale
While it was a dream to start a pizza farm eventually, Blossom Hill Orchard and Farm owners Hillary and Dane Diede decided to focus on developing their apple orchard first. And then disaster struck. They lost an entire apple crop due to an early frost.
“It was devastating,” says Hillary. “But, I think it pushed us to do what we had a passion for: preparing food for others.”
While they’re still cultivating their apple crop, they’ve fallen in love with the pizza farm enterprise. Hillary, a classically-trained chef, uses whatever ingredients Dane grows.
“When it comes to creating a menu, our offerings are always seasonal,” Hillary says. “We’re not serving anything that’s out of season.”
Besides crafting the pizzas, Hillary also runs the Shop at Blossom Hill, where she sells delicious pies (not of the pizza variety), rolls, other baked goods, and more. The Shop is open to the public in the spring, summer and fall, everyday except Mondays. (Photos courtesy Blossom Hill Orchard & Farm)
Suncrest Gardens Farm
S2257 Yaeger Valley Rd, Cochrane, WI
Owners: Heather Seacrist
Season: May 4 – September
Fridays, 4-8:30 pm; Saturdays, 4-8:30 pm
House favorite: Last year, Heather served rhubarb salsa to people as they waited. While it’s not pizza, it was a crowd favorite.
When Heather Seacrist left her childhood home and dairy farm for college, she vowed her farming days were over. Now, she laughs at that thought.
“The root of agriculture was in me. I liked working with the land. I liked knowing where my food came from.”
Today, she’s the owner of Suncrest Gardens Farm, located in the Wisconsin Yeager Valley, where she and her family raise a handful of sheep, pigs, and host pizza nights in season. She says offering a pizza farm has been a hugely gratifying experience.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Heather, whose husband runs a dairy farm just down the road. “So much work goes into each and every pizza. To be able to see it – and the ingredients – in the finished product…that’s a very satisfying moment.”
Heather has worked hard to make Suncrest a family-friendly place to enjoy a night out. Live music, yard games, a small petting zoo, and a playground area keep visitors of all ages happy. Campfires are often lit at dusk, and s’mores are welcome! (Photos courtesy Suncrest Gardens Farm)
Luna Valley Farm
3012 Middle Sattre Rd, Decorah, IA
Owners: Maren and Tom Beard
Season: May 4 – October
Fridays, 4-8 pm
House favorite: Iowa Margherita – Margherita pizza topped with locally-sourced sausage
“We get a little excited about good food and community,” says Maren Beard, co-owner of Luna Valley Farm just outside of Decorah, Iowa. “We love bringing people together over good food, especially when we can share ingredients we’ve grown here at Luna Valley Farm.”
Maren and Tom Beard bought their 133-acre certified organic farm five years ago. And while they love tilling the land, raising cattle, pigs, and sheep, and growing corn and soybeans, they were burdened by the debt they were shouldering.
“We started brainstorming ideas that could help,” says Maren. “We both have a passion for food and community. We love hosting dinner parties. Then, we saw this pizza farm enterprise. We were both like, bingo! This is what we’ve been searching for.”
Using Tom’s skills as a farmer and chef, and Maren’s passion for sustainable food systems and food procurement, they kicked off their pizza farm in 2017. And, happily, folks headed on out to the country to try their artisan pizza, resulting in sell-out nights on more than one occasion.
“Decorah is community-minded,” says Maren. “People care about local food and small farms. Right from the beginning, we knew the community would have our back.”
This year, Tom and Maren are introducing glamping (glamour camping). A 12 x 14’ tent, nestled in an Oak Savanna hillside, will feature a king-sized bed and whimsical lanterns. In the morning, glampers will get to enjoy a breakfast basket and coffee on a private patio overlooking the farm. (Photos courtesy Silver Moon Photography)
If you’re new to pizza farms, here are some tips and ideas to get you started:
• Bring your own blanket or lawn chairs. Some farms have limited tables, but don’t count on it. Check the pizza farm’s website to see if you need to bring in plates, silverware, garbage bags, etc. You can generally bring salads, snacks, dessert, and sometimes non-alcoholic beverages (although many farms work really hard to offer amazing beverages and/or appetizers, so if you’re short on time or want to further support the venture, hooray!). Some farms do allow you to bring in alcohol, others don’t (or state laws prohibit it). Again, call or check the website.
• Remember this is someone’s home. Be respectful of the guidelines regarding open spaces, animals, recycling, and waste (sometimes you’ll need to carry out your own garbage, etc).
• You’re in the country, so often your cell phone will not work. Enjoy this lack of connection by finding a new connection: to your friends, family, and the land.
• While many pizza farms accept credit cards, it’s helpful to bring cash. Less credit card fees for small businesses means more money supporting the community!
• If you plan to come with a group of 20 or more, please let the pizza farms know so they can accommodate your large group.
• The wait time for pizzas can be long, especially in July and August. Bring a deck of cards, a book, or a yard game, if you’d like.
• Additional helpful tips: Bring a headlamp or flashlight in case it gets dark while you were having fun on the farm. Assume all fences are electric. It’s best to leave your pets at home.
Maggie Sonnek, wife & mom of three, cannot wait for summer. She plans to sip iced coffee outside, take walks to the park & explore these pizza farms. (Maybe even Glamping at Luna Valley). Head over to millcitycreativempls.com to learn more about Maggie’s work & her blog spotlighting entrepreneurial women (including a beekeeper and alpaca farmer).