Does the image of people dining al fresco – with a view of your blooming herb gardens … while savoring meals made with your farm-raised ingredients … while connecting to a quintessential rural experience – bring a smile to your face? What if these folks were paying guests who added income to your farm’s bottom line?
If the idea of cultivating some green – as in cash flow – from dining options among the beautiful green surroundings of your farm and fields appeals to you, you’re on the path of a hot culinary trend.
According to the National Restaurant Association, which tracks top food trends every year, their 2016 list is dominated by local food and farm-fresh themes, from diners looking for locally sourced and grown meats and produce to prioritizing environmental sustainability.
While on-farm dining grows in demand and can be an appealing way to diversify farm income, the reality of navigating state regulations and bringing such a start-up to life can present challenges that often come with a hefty commercial kitchen price. Before you invest a dime, do your research and appropriate due diligence. Here are four steps to get you started in launching your potential on-farm food venture:
1. Start with a potluck.
Think long and hard about what your ultimate objective is in gathering folks on your farm to share a meal. If success to you at the end of the evening involves bringing people together and creating community around the table, consider keeping it a simple potluck. Most states even have legislation defining and legalizing a potluck. This means that whenever people voluntarily gather to share food and no money is exchanged, such events are not subject to state inspection or licensing.
“A potluck can very likely serve your goals without the cost or regulator barriers of a commercial kitchen enterprise,” says Brett Olson, creative director at Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit organization that champions rural entrepreneurship, including training for farmers interested in diversifying into on-farm food service. “Granted, a potluck wouldn’t be a source of direct income for your farm, but remember there you still reap the marketing and outreach benefits of hosting such an event.”
Hosting potlucks also provides insight into what such food events would entail. Is your property well-suited for the flow of people? Do you have adequate parking space? Are your animals safe from onlookers and vice versa? Most importantly, how do you react to a crowd of people descending upon your farm? Diversifying into an agritourism venture like hosting food service events moves you from “farmer in the field” to “event host,” which for some can be a great fit. For others, the host role can quickly make the farmer weary when they find themselves setting up tables all afternoon instead of harvesting those beans in the field.
2. Partner with caterers and chefs.
If you enjoy the potluck scene, as a next step, consider exploring options that let you test-drive the business side of a legitimate food service venture, yet avoid the cost of a commercial kitchen.
An easy way to accomplish this is to work with a catering company or restaurant chef that would prepare the food off-site in their licensed restaurant or commercial kitchen, and then deliver and serve the food on your farm. The company preparing the menu can then purchase ingredients from your farm and work with you in planning the menu, but you are not involved with the food preparation or service. A caterer can also help you navigate any other licenses or regulations required by your state, as they would be familiar with what is required of such events. At our Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B, we went this route when we contracted with the company Dinner on the Farm. They coordinated a picnic-style meal during our Soil Sisters community event last August, catered by the Underground Kitchen in Madison, Wisconsin.
Working with such partners brings the event out of potluck status because attendees pay for prepared food. You could invite your CSA (community supported agriculture) members to purchase tickets to savor a special night at your place. Their friends could buy tickets and come. Working with an outside group involves compensating their time to prepare the food, as well as the resources they use, like commercial-grade equipment. You can still sell the ingredients the chef purchased from your farm and generate income that way, but you most likely won’t be making much off the ticket price with this kind of arrangement, as the cost of the caterer and chef services would quickly eat away at profit margin.
Adding in a chef provides allure to your event. That’s exactly how Gabriele Marewski of Paradise Farms in Homestead, Florida, built a successful on-farm food venture. She partnered with trendy chefs from the Miami food scene to cater her on-farm “Dinner in Paradise.”
“It’s a win-win for both the chef and my farm, as I’m guaranteed a fabulous meal and don’t have to do any prep work,” says Marewski, who specializes in microgreens, mushrooms, herbs and edible flowers. “The chefs love getting creative with my produce and relish the opportunity to do something out of their expected restaurant menu box.” Marewski also likes the chef partnership aspect because it enables her to focus on what she does best: sharing her farm. By not having to focus on food preparation, she can shine in her role as hostess, giving garden tours and answering guest questions.
3. Define your menu and frequency.
When you move into food that you prepare yourself, your menu choice has a large impact on the degree of regulations, permits, and overall expense you will need to deal with, says Rachel Armstrong, lawyer and founder of Farm Commons, a nonprofit organization that empowers farmers through legal education. Bottom line, you will not be able to use your home kitchen for any food preparation; you will need some form of licensed facility, whether it be a commercial kitchen, a food stand, or other option. What exactly is required to license the facility will be dictated by what you serve.
“A menu of reheated hot dogs with a bag of chips, packaged cookie, and a can of soda will be much simpler in requirements than a plated full-course meal made with your vegetables, meat, and other farm fare,” adds Armstrong. “Understandably, that isn’t the most appealing option to farmers who are about local and fresh, but it’s important to understand that what you serve makes the difference in determining what kitchen you need to invest in.”
This regulation reality explains why the “pizza farm” is taking off as an example of an accessible, intriguing, tasty option. With roots originating in the Midwest, a “pizza farm” concept involves a farm serving pizza, typically with farm-raised ingredients and baked in an extremely hot, 800-degree, wood-fired oven.
“The pizza-making concept is simpler from a regulatory standpoint than a five-course, multiple-dish meal, and it’s a brilliant way for a farm to showcase what it raises through topping combinations,” Armstrong says. Pizza farms serve the pizza “takeout” style, and guests have the option to take it home or, much more likely, bring their own gear and eat picnic-style on the farm. This simpler format means a farm might be able to avoid infrastructure for things they don’t do, such as serve food on plates or reheat prepared dishes like a full-scale, sit-down restaurant.
“Doing a weekly, on-farm pizza night proved to be one of our most lucrative and fun ventures yet in diversifying our farm business,” says Kat Becker, co-owner with her husband, Tony Schultz, of Stoney Acres Farm in Wisconsin. The core of Stoney Acres Farm includes a 20-week CSA vegetable operation, along with everything from grassfed beef to organic grains and maple syrup. Their newest venture, which opened in 2012, includes farm-to-table pizzas served on Friday nights from May through October.
“Diversifying into pizza made strategic sense on multiple levels, as we already raised or grew most of the key ingredients, from pigs for the sausage to vegetables for toppings to grain for the crust,” says Becker. Their largest pizza out-of-pocket cost is cheese, which is purchased directly from local cheesemakers.
“It brings together the ultimate combination for us: sharing what we grow and raise directly with our community, right on our land,” Becker says.
Typically, farms run a pizza night once a week, which will often keep things simple under state regulation code that deals with frequency. Once you get past a certain number of food events, however, more requirements kick in that push you into a more restaurant-like health code, which gets more complicated and costly, often requiring things like weekly well-water tests.
4. Navigate commercial kitchen requirements.
“As you move beyond something like pizza into more complex and changing menus, increased infrastructure and cost to your kitchen set-up will be required,” Armstrong says. “Your best bet is to develop a strong and transparent working relationship with your inspector so you can plan your menu and overall business venture in a way that meets requirements and satisfies your food-service vision.” Remember that each state’s laws and regulations, typically regulated by the department of health, will vary when it comes to food service.
“Installing a commercial kitchen isn’t as intimidating as you think, but we did need to research and understand the requirements so as to use our money wisely,” Becker says. The commercial kitchen was part of a barn remodel and included purchasing used kitchen equipment at auction, saving thousands of dollars. “Take the time to visit other operations. We gained much insight from visiting other farms and seeing how they run.”
“However you do it, from a simple potluck to a full-scale commercial enterprise, creating a memorable event on your farm around the sharing of food goes beyond just a meal,” Olson says. “An on-farm dining experience provides an engaging educational outlet to bring people directly to the place where their food comes from. Everyone leaves with more than a satisfying meal. They are now more connected to and appreciative of what farmers do.
Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko run Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B in Wisconsin, completely powered by the wind and the sun. They are co-authors of Homemade for Sale, Farmstead Chef, Ecopreneuring, and Rural Renaissance. Lisa’s latest book is Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers.