If you’re not willing to wait two hours for a pizza, don’t show up at Red Barn Farm on Wednesday nights.
“We make a hundred pizzas in an hour, and we still get behind,” says owner Pat Winter.
The family-run farm in Northfield, Minnesota, started hosting pop-up pizza nights in 2009. Lured by freshly made pies featuring tomatoes, peppers, onions, and basil from Winter's one-acre garden—as well as hand-crafted dough and meats from a local butcher shop—visitors to Red Barn are seeking out both dinner and an experience.
Traveling upwards of two hours to eat pizza on the farm between May and October, diners place their orders, take a number, and wait. And wait. Most never complain.
“It’s not just a meal, it’s a destination,” says Winter. “People come here to relax and enjoy the setting, not to grab a meal and run.”
The first year, Winter was thrilled to serve 50 pizzas per night. Fast-forward seven years and the farm's on-site brick oven bakes 500 pizzas in four hours.
As the harvest changes, so does the menu. The farm recently offered broccoli pizzas to use up a bumper crop of the cruciferous veggies. And as zucchini comes in fast and furious later this month, Winter plans to feature it as a special topping.
Seasonal, Sustainable—and Ultra-Casual
Red Barn Farm is just one of a handful of so-called “pizza farms” to have emerged in the upper Midwest. The farms—including Two Pony Gardens in Long Lake, Minnesota; the Stone Barn in Nelson, Wisconsin; and Dream Acres Farm in Wykoff, Minnesota—grow the ingredients on-site and host seasonal pizza nights to bring people closer to the source of their food.
When A to Z Produce and Bakery (which Winter calls “the grandfathers of the pizza farm”) hosted its first pizza night on its Stockholm, Wisconsin, farm in 1998, what had started out as an experiment caused a ripple effect across the region as pizza farms became increasingly popular.
In neighboring Cochrane, Wisconsin, Heather Secrist started serving pizza on Suncrest Gardens Farm in 2005 to help support the 16-acre operation. On Friday nights in May and September and Thursday nights from June to August, Secrist makes 300 pizzas per night.
“Serving pizza was an integral part of making the farm sustainable,” she explains.
In addition to growing all of the vegetables for pizza toppings, the farm raises hogs and chickens for Italian sausage, bacon, Canadian bacon, and chicken. Next year, their grass-fed lamb will be added to the pizza-night menu. The grains for the dough are sourced from a mill next door.
Over the past 11 years, the farm has served guests from all 50 states and dozens of different countries. “When people have guests from out of town, they come here for pizza night because it gives them a taste of what’s special about Wisconsin,” Secrist says.
Pizza nights tend to be no-frills affairs. Menus are limited to pizza, and there are typically no dining rooms or servers. Guests bring their own picnic blankets or chairs and create their own seating areas in the pastoral settings. According to Secrist, the uber-casual vibe is part of the appeal.
"People know this is a place where the kids can run around and have fun, as opposed to being at a restaurant and confined to their tables,” she says.
Chicken, Beef, or a Slice?
As demand for homegrown pizza grows, farmers like Winter and Secrist are struggling to keep up.
For her part, Secrist is maxed out on what her pizza ovens and staff can handle. “If I would have started out at the level we’re at now, I would have crashed and burned,” she says. (See "Common Food for the Campaign Diet? Pizza and Doughnuts")
During the 2015 season, Winter declined all interview requests from the media because his farm couldn’t handle the additional traffic.
“We’re not looking to beat any more records,” he says.
But they're making some concessions to meet demand. Red Barn Farm offers pizza as part of its wedding packages—and 80 percent of couples order it, according to Winter. Between November and March, when Suncrest Gardens takes a hiatus from pizza nights, Secrist offers a limited pizza menu with par-baked pies available for pickup.
While pizza farms could extend their seasons, add extra staff, build additional pizza ovens, or throw open the pasture gates for more events, Winter, in particular, is reluctant to disrupt the model.
“We’ve got a good thing going," he says, "and we don’t want to commercialize it."
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based food and farms writer who prefers margherita pizza.