Slice of country life: A twist on farm-to-table brings diners to ‘pizza farms’
This farm-to-table movement features a growing new twist — bringing the table to the farm for a slice of pizza made with homegrown ingredients.
AtoZ Produce and Bakery in Stockholm, Wisconsin, started a pizza night in 1998, and so it’s considered the first “pizza farm” in the nation.
Other pizza farms began cropping up more than a decade ago. In Wisconsin, they include Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, Suncrest Gardens Farm in Cochrane and The Stone Barn in Nelson. Travel Wisconsin, reaching out to agro-tourists, recently celebrated these destinations, as well as LoveTree Farmstead Cheese in Grantsburg, as “fantastic pizza farms in Wisconsin.”
Yelpers, TripAdvisors, tweeters and WiG readers, when prompted for reviews, agree with Travel Wisconsin’s assessment.
WiG reader and pizza enthusiast Sue Upshaw of Milwaukee traveled with three friends to Suncrest Gardens Farm last summer to feast on the Sunshine and Summertime Love pizzas. “It was a beautiful drive through valleys and past farmland,” she said. “Then a perfect evening with the freshest possible food and good-time music. But gosh, really it’s all about the farm. That place in the country, it’s charmed.”
For some, saving the farm through pizza
Pizza farming also is a way for the family farmer to earn a living at a time when the number of small farms continues to decline and net farm income in the United States is expected to drop to a 12-year low.
Not only is farm income down, farm credit is tightening. And farm solvency is declining — farm debt, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is forecast at a record $389 billion in 2018.
Those strains raise concerns that the United States is on the cusp of the biggest wave of foreclosures since the 1980s, according to Farm Aid, the organization created in the midst of the 1980s farm crisis and supported by a legion of musicians who stage benefit concerts.
Farm Aid says changes to policies that enrich massive agribusinesses at the expense of family farmers are needed to address unfair pricing, inequitable access to credit and unfair trade. They’d like to reign in corporations that control the U.S. food supply — from farm to fork.
But small farmers also are changing how they operate to survive or thrive. They are planting fewer acres but growing food crops rather than commodities. They increasingly are turning to CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs, as well as baking breads, brewing beers, blending wines — and firing up ovens to cook pizzas.
Tony Schultz, 38, of Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, is one of those farmers.
Stoney Acres is a third-generation family farm. “I was born and raised on this farm,” said Schultz.
When he was a kid, it operated as a dairy farm. “But with the consolidation of the dairy industry, we sold our cows in ’98 and I went to college.”
He went to work as a teacher, outside Madison, and his dad rented out the family farm. But in 2006, clued to the popularity of farmers’ markets, the CSA movement and the farm-to-table trend, Schultz took over the family farm.
“That whole scene was exploding,” he said of the farmers’ markets.
Schultz recognized an opportunity to market to Wausau and is now in his 12th year of operating a CSA program. Six years ago, the pizza farm opened at Stoney Acres.
“We wanted to build a hearth and have big parties around it,” he said.
On the farm, he raises chickens, cows and pigs, and promotes sustainable and organic farming. In 2013, he installed a solar power system to generate heat for the packshed and greenhouse, as well as the water in a commercial kitchen.
To promote biodiversity, Stoney Acres grows more than 185 types of plants, including more than 80 types of crops.
“Everything,” Schultz said, “comes from the farm.”
‘I just like to grow food’
Heather Secrist of Suncrest Gardens Farm in the Yeager Valley also promotes sustainability and community.
Her “about” page on the farm’s website says she’s “farmer/chef with a wicked crazy mind.”
“I grew up on a dairy farm upriver 20 minutes,” said Secrist, who is turning 40 this year. “When I left the farm, I didn’t think I was going to be in farming. But those roots are strong.”
While living in Oregon, she tended a vegetable garden and, it turned out, she’s an over-producer — a good thing for a farmer.
“I just like to grow food,” Secrist said. “And I guess some people have a bit of a green thumb.”
Eventually Secrist found herself following a path to farming. And her husband operates a nearby dairy farm that’s been in his family for about 150 years.
On the 16-acre Suncrest farm, founded in 2003, Secrist raises animals and also grows vegetables, herbs and berries. To extend the growing season, she has a greenhouse and three hoop houses. Plants may begin from seed in the growhouses and then get transplanted to gardens in the spring.
Later in the season, the farm will produce at least 16 types of tomatoes — ingredients as essential to pizza as delicious dough.
Because the farm produces so much of the food that it serves, Secrist said, “It’s easier to say what’s not from the farm.” She then mentioned artichokes and olives.
On the last Thursday afternoon in April, a week before the opening pizza night, she sat at her kitchen table and looked out the window.
“Things are starting to green up on the farm,” she observed.
The farm’s motto is “Eat Well. Smile Often.”
The operation employs more than 20 people and also is a family affair, with Secrist’s mom working in the kitchen, her dad at the grill and her two sons helping out with shifts.
“July is a real busy time,” she said. “Or the beginning of August, just before school starts. … People are usually out here for a couple of hours when they come.”
The farm serves pizza — offerings can change as the season progresses — cooked in ovens fired by oak. They’ve also got burgers, gyros, kabobs and vegetarian entrees, as well as appetizers, sides and desserts, like angel food cake with raspberry sauce.
“We have laying hens,” Secrist said, explaining the signature dessert that requires an abundance of egg whites. “A lot of the menu items get inspired by what we have here. That can be a fun, creative culinary challenge.”
Worth the wait
Stoney Acres Pizza on the Farm and Brewery advertises seasonal 16-inch “Wisconsin-style” pizzas and craft beer and cider, as well as market produce and treats, like homemade maple syrup ice pops.
Stoney’s pizzas take about five minutes to prepare and cook, but the size of the dinner crowd determines the wait — 10 to 30 minutes or, at the height of summer, a half-hour to an hour.
The farm produces the organic spring wheat that’s ground to make the pizza crust, as well as the vegetables, herbs and meats that top the pies and go into the sauce. The cheeses are locally sourced.
The farm also grows hops and barley for the beer.
During pizza night on the farms, there may be animal encounters, with chickens strutting on the lawn, cows mooing in the fields and dogs lapping from water bowls.
The hosts provide musical entertainment and lawn games. Some, like at Suncrest, light campfires to roast marshmallows for s’mores.
Patrons from near and far
“The customers will come in even before we open,” said Marcy Smith, 36, of The Stone Barn in Nelson.
Smith works during the week in Pepin as a high school counselor, and her husband, Matt, 36, teaches.
They co-own The Stone Barn along with Matt’s sister, Amber, and her wife, Anne Magratten, who work at the restaurant during the season but reside most of the year in Oregon.
Smith said she and her husband worked at The Stone Barn — she tended bar and he cooked — before they purchased the business about three years ago.
“It already was another home for us, a place near and dear to our hearts,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place to work.”
The Stone Barn, which gets its name from a restored two-story barn on the property, serves Italian-style pizzas. The sausage, chorizo and lamb toppings are made in-house.
They grow herbs in a courtyard garden while onions, peppers and other produce are purchased from a farm “two miles down the road” and lambs are raised on a farm about five miles away.
Specialty pizzas include the Alaskan — with smoked salmon, onions, dill, capers and cream cheese — and the Greek — with lamb, onions, olives, artichoke, feta cheese, oregano and olive oil.
Smith’s favorite is the Thai pizza, with chicken, onions, sweet bell peppers, cilantro and a peanut sauce.
Pizza night patrons who turn into the gravel drive come from as near as “in town” but as far as St. Paul, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Chicago and beyond, according to Smith.
Schultz and Secrist said the same.
“It’s a point of pride that people come from Chicago for good pizza,” Schultz said.
‘Pizza season’ arrives
For those hungry for the experience, pizza season begins with the arrival of the earliest harvests in the Midwest and ends in the fall with the last harvests.
Some farms open in mid-May. Some opened early this month. And some, with snow still on the ground, opened in April.
Pizza season at Suncrest begins May 4 and continues through Sept. 29, with dining hours Fridays and Saturdays and live music Friday nights.
The 13th season of pizza night at The Stone Barn begins May 18, with dinner served 5–9 p.m. Friday, 4–9 p.m. Saturday and noon–8 p.m. Sunday.
Stoney Acres, which will serve diners through Nov. 3, opened April 20.
A foot of snow covered the ground on opening night.
“But it was 55 degrees and gorgeous sun," said Schultz.
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