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Farmers offer tips to help others start on-farm food service

By Lisa Kivirist, MOSES

The growing interest in on-farm, agritourism experiences combined with consumer enthusiasm for local foods have fueled growth in dinner-on-the-farm ventures. But diversifying into on-farm meals is not a simple nor low cost diversification strategy for farmers as these endeavors involve jumping into arenas we’re not typically familiar with, like building commercial kitchens and navigating various health department regulations. Add in the high price tag of such efforts and the importance of solid research and education before investing grows apparent.

Renewing the Countryside offers that through its Come and Get It project, with the tagline, “What you need to know to serve food on your farm.” This project provides free resources and expert advice for farmers looking to potentially diversify into on-farm food service to help them best manage risk and make sound business decisions.

Stoney Acres, Athens, Wis. Photo submitted

“There definitely is increasing opportunity for farms to diversify and grow income through expanding into agritourism offerings that incorporate their own farm-raised ingredients, from on-farm dinners to pizza farms to various food events,” explained Brett Olson, creative director of Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based organization that champions rural revitalization. “Unfortunately, few resources exist to provide farmers with guidance, resources and support in such efforts, and we want to address this need.”

The Come and Get It program, with funding from a North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education partnership grant, fills this gap by providing expert support and resources for farmers seeking to successfully launching such ventures. Support from the Minnesota Sustainable Agriculture Institute (MISA) and Farm Commons initially helped launch this unique program, the only training program of its kind in the country.

Seven farm partners in Minnesota and Wisconsin serve on the project team for Come and Get It, providing advice and support to farmers looking to potentially start such operations: Together Farms in Mondovi, Wis., Suncrest Gardens Farm in Cochrane, Wis., Borner Farm Project in Prescott, Wis., Dream Acres Farm in Spring Valley, Minn., and Moonstone Farm in Montevideo, Minn. Campo di Bella and Squash Blossom Farm also hosted on-farm field days during the summer of 2018 to give farmers a “behind the scenes” look at their kitchen operations.

Project elements include a free detailed manual with specific versions for Minnesota and Wisconsin to help farmers assess and evaluate the business planning aspects of adding an on-farm food enterprise, including navigating the various regulatory categories, assessing market opportunity, food businesses license categories, liability and food safety compliance and marketing. The manual also includes case study stories of two farms: Stoney Acres in Athens, Wis., and Dinner on the Farm in Rochester, Minn.

A new element of this project includes a research component in partnership with the Applied Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in which feedback and data will be collected from attendees at various on-farm events during the 2018 season and compiled. This research report will be available in an updated version of the manual in December 2018.

“This unique research data will help farmers looking into food service to gain a better understanding of who is coming to such events,” Olson said. “For the first time, we’ll have data on things like how these folks hear about such events, how far did they travel and what other services might they be looking for, like farm-stay overnight lodging.”

The collaborative spirit of the sustainable farming community shines in this project as the farm partner team generously share their reflections and advice for others looking to start such diversification income streams. Here are five key starter tips from these successful farmer entrepreneurs:

 

Take it slowly.
Take your time and do your research before spending a dime is a consistent piece of advice. Remember to ask yourself those bigger questions of how such an addition can fit in with and support your other farm efforts.

“Opening the on-farm restaurant and winery in 2015 has been a dream of Marc and mine for years, but it is something that came together slowly and strategically,” explained Mary Ann Bellazzini of Campo di Bella Farm. “We still keep creatively experimenting with ideas, always asking ourselves does this fit our values, especially prioritizing our family and spending time with our two teen sons.”

Even when you officially embark on building a kitchen, realize these projects still can go slowly, especially when dealing with various contractors and builders. “We learned the hard way that the best laid plans don’t always work according to your schedule,” offered Susan Waughtal of Squash Blossom Farm. She and her husband, Roger Nelson, originally intended to open in June of 2016 for pizza; however, the electrical and plumbing contractors didn’t complete their work under September. “We were basically a small beans project to them and other bigger clients came first.”

Educate while you innovate.
Odds are what you are envisioning doesn’t fit into the typical regulation box. Keep communication and education flowing between you and various agency representatives.

Dream Acres’s kitchen goes down in the commercial kitchen history books as it is the first completely off-grid, solar-powered facility of its kind. “Being off-grid, the kitchen took a lot of time to research and explain to the health department as it was so out of their box,” explained Eva Barr of Dream Acres Farm. “We’ve learned to be extremely upfront about what we’re doing in talking to regulators and to simply keep at it. Eventually you will find someone receptive to what you’re doing and willing to work with you.”

Stephanie Schneider of Together Farms had a similar experience building a food trailer for her on-farm food events. “Anytime I do something it seems like I’m the first to do it and have to talk to everyone in state government,” she recalled. “There are things we needed to work out because the trailer is not a permanent structure as there is no hard plumbing so we needed to hire someone to come and pump out the grey water.”

Add additional sales opportunities.
An on-farm food service component can support and enhance other farm businesses. “The income we generate via selling food is not the primary reason we do this,” explained Audrey Arner of Moonstone Farm, which hosts a few events annually. Her core business component is grass-fed, pasture-raised beef and maintaining one of the first farm-stays in the area in the early 1990s. “We also sell our beef direct from the farm as well as fruit preserves made from farm-grown fruits such as currants, elderberries and apples, honey and pottery and barn art my husband and I make.”

Build Community Creatively.
Cultivating community can be a natural off-shoot of an on-farm food business, as Diane and Baard Webster realized in starting the Borner Farm Project, a unique 22-acres property located in the center of the town of Prescott, population 4,000.

“We never intended to start a pizza farm,” shared Diane Webster with a grin. “This journey really began with our desire to take care of this very unique property and do it in a way that helps support a local food system and build community.” An opportunity came on her radar that offered small grants for repeatable events that would create local community, which helped fund the pizza oven. Local response was strong. They now do about 13 pizza nights a year.

Be Open to Change.
Adding a food service element to your business mix undoubtedly will impact your core farming business. Be aware and open to change, advised Heather Secrist of Suncrest Gardens Farm. In 2017, after running her pizza nights for over 12 years, Secrist stopped the CSA side of the business as the pizza nights and other value-added items were significantly driving the farm business.

“It was a very hard decision for me to make as we had been providing food to many of our members for years and I watched – and fed – their kids as they grew up.” Secrist saw an opportunity in utilizing her kitchen for other prepared food products and started doing frozen items like soups and pizzas at the Winona Farmers Market. “Our CSA customers still were really interested in these convenience foods that were healthy and local.”

Download the manual, Come & Get It: What you need to know to serve food on your farm

 

Lisa Kivirist manages the MOSES In Her Boots project. She and her family run Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B outside Monroe, Wis.

From the September | October 2018 Issue

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