Sun ovens, pizza dinners and CSA potlucks beckon to the modern farmer’s soul in warmer weather. The desire to share our love of the land with others is heavily ingrained, but bringing people to your farm for a summer event can even benefit your bottom line.
“Providing a value-added product, such as seasonal on-farm dinners or weekly pizza nights using veggies and meats produced on the farm, can be more profitable for some farmers than doing farmers markets or even a CSA,” says Harriet Behar, specialist with the Midwest Organic Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).
But despite the appeal of a fun evening spent with friends and food lovers on the land you love, it can be a lot of work—work that not all farmers are cut out for. Hosting a meal for paying customers or CSA members takes a bit more than laying out a few blankets and filling up a set of mason jars with iced tea.
“The farmer’s personality and goals determine if on-farm food service is the right fit,” Behar says. “Those with an entrepreneurial spirit and outgoing personality typically do well bringing people onto their farms, providing a welcoming atmosphere and an attractive food option that brings customers to their tables.”
Kriss Marion, co-owner and chef at Circle M Farm in Blanchardville, Wis., is one such farmer and lends her expertise on how to host a successful farm dinner.
1. Plan Your Menu By The Seasons
In other words, flexibility is key. Marion usually has a rough meal plan in her head, and fleshes it out based on what was brought in from the field that day. “I don’t release a field-to-table dinner menu until a few days before the event—and some things I make up that day!” she says. “I don’t think being in the field-to-table business is a good idea unless you like to operate by the seat of your pants.”
2. Manage The Guest List
If you have limited resources or you’re new to hosting culinary events, keep your guest list small. Start by inviting loyal farm customers, and from there, you can work up to larger-scale events. The guest list for Circle M dinners comprises CSA members, whose meal tickets are included in the subscription price. “When I have a few seats left at a dinner—CSA guests do have to reserve a week ahead of time—I use those to bless community leaders or volunteers or bring in people I think would make interesting conversation with the rest of my guests, and they eat for free,” Marion says. “It is a crazy way to plan a party, but it tends to work in a rather magical way.”
3. Don’t Sell Yourself Short
Building up community and profiting from a farm-to-table event are not mutually exclusive, Marion attests. “I charge a lot for my CSA boxes and dinners,” she says. “I have a tiny membership (21 families) and I expect to attract people who want to invest in the local-food community in a very connected way. These members help subsidize the time spent at my little town farmers market where I don’t make enough to justify the time, but I get to bring my neighbors great produce and get to visit with them at the same time. It is a high value for me to create public gatherings around food, and both the dinners and markets fit my mission, and reach different economic groups.”
4. Heed Licensing And Regulations
Before you get too far into the planning process, Marion and Behar strongly recommend checking with your state’s department of health or agriculture to be clear on the applicable laws when it comes to food preparation and catering, as regulations can vary greatly by region. However, don’t let the red tape stop you from throwing a fabulous food celebration. “Make allies!” Marion says. “Build relationships with people who are doing what you’d like to do, or something close to it, and ask a barrage of questions. Do the same with neighbors so they’ll advocate for you if push comes to regulatory shove. Be proactive and reach out to local inspectors and ask them for advice.”
5. Dine—And Unwind!
“To achieve this final step, create a welcoming and warm atmosphere,” Marion says. “We have a lovely farm, and we put a lot of time into the beauty of our place, which serves both our CSA families, our bed-and-breakfast guests and ourselves.”
She doesn’t underplay the work involved in creating this relaxing ambiance: Hours of work go into cleaning up the farm for farm-to-table events. However, give yourself grace in the preparation process: The event doesn’t have to be picture-perfect to be successful. Start out simple and build up to future events, but most of all, be true to the spirit of your farm.
“Our table settings outside are mismatched, casual and charming: Picture country shabby-chic,” Marion says. “We think there couldn’t possibly be any other venue that looked or felt like ours, because our vintage linens, serving pieces, dishware and even chairs have been collected over time—contributed by neighbors, friends and members—and lovingly curated by moi! I want you to feel like the farm is yours when you are here, and even when you leave, I hope you’ll take a piece of this beautiful land with you in your heart. Our motto is ‘Make our farm yours.’”
Farm-to-table dinners are excellent ways to showcase your hard work and your thriving farm with your local food community. Treat your supporters to a farm-fresh meal and boost your bottom line at the same time, but just remember to start small and enjoy yourself: Everyone will be the better for it.
About the Author: Rachel Werner is the assistant editor of BRAVA, a magazine created by women for women. She is a fitness instructor, personal trainer and blogger, and her passionate commitment to holistic wellness and sustainable agriculture makes Madison, Wis., a wonderful home.