Pat and Tammy Winter moved their family to a hobby farm to sell produce back in 2008 — until the housing market recovered from its crash and Pat could once again make a living selling real estate.

But late one Wednesday afternoon not long ago, as customers ambled in for “pizza night” on their 10-acre farm south of Northfield, Winter said he plans to let his license expire at the end of the year. Running the farm, he said, a chef’s hat on his head, is “so much more rewarding.”

Things are certainly booming. In their fourth May-to-October season of pizza nights, the Winter family — including Hannah, 20, and Max, 18, along with family friends — has at times served more than 1,000 people in a four-hour window. In July and August, they were so busy, with waits up to 2½ hours, that they had to install an extra brick oven.

The waits haven’t deterred Steve Hancock and his wife, Jill Stedman, nor has the considerable price tag: $25 per 16-inch pizza. Hancock, a pilot, and Stedman, a teacher, have come from their home in St. Paul several times each of the past couple summers for pizza, fresh eggs and the open air.

“Especially coming from the city,” Hancock said, “it’s just nice to be able to see everything.” Their daughters, ages 8 months and 2 years, love the animals. The elder of them screeches in delight while pursuing a chicken across the grass.

That’s exactly what they’re there for, said Winter. For the farm cats and dogs and, even in this age of litigation, the trees. Winter sawed off the weak branches so kids can climb them. “What good is going to a farm, he said, “if you can’t climb around on the trees?”

“Our whole goal,” he said, “is to share this with the community.”

‘Pizza farms’ spread

The farm is part of a growing phenomenon in Minnesota and Wisconsin. The Winters got the idea from A to Z Produce and Bakery in Stockholm, Wis.

Pizza farms appear to be a uniquely Midwestern twist on the broader “farm-to-table” movement across the country, according to Yelp, the restaurant and business-rating website.

While a survey of Yelp reviews with the words “pizza farm” in reviews shows only 20 or so nationwide, a third of them are in Minnesota and Wisconsin, said Jonathan Truong, Yelp’s Community Manager. “There seems to be a noticeable shift with consumers [for] supporting local producers,” said Truong, and customers are willing to drive for it.

Winter said customers will drive three hours round trip to Red Barn Farm, from Mankato to the Twin Cities.

Surprisingly, less than half come from Northfield, he said — they don’t advertise at all — but those who do come, are there every Wednesday night.

Local food is a part of the draw. Winter pointed out the week’s special, with apple cinnamon sausage and blue cheese from two farms in neighboring Nerstrand. The veggies on the pizza, always seasonal, are “straight from the back yard,” he said. The popular “fall special” piles on squash, spinach, tomatoes and onions.

Customers will drive for so-called “slow food” — and, at $25 for a 16-inch pizza, they apparently will pay for it — but the main reason they come to pizza farms is deeper than the toppings. Generations of Americans have grown up outside of farms, Winter said, and they want to reconnect with their heritage.

There’s a wedding or reception on the farm every weekend in season, he said, and when many of the brides walk into the barn, the first thing they do is look up in the rafters. They’ve never been in a barn, Winter said, but they knew they wanted to have their wedding in one.

“It’s mysterious to them,” he said. “It’s part of their past they don’t know anything about.”

Rural heritage

The interest in rural heritage is what prompted Northfield’s Rice County to change its ordinances for farmland. With Red Barn Farm as a pilot project, the county is hoping that more hobby farms, wineries and bed-and-breakfast types will contribute to a rise in so-called agro-tourism.

Government wasn’t always so keen to help. While the county embraces the pizza farm now, it initially told the family that a pizza farm couldn’t work with its regulations.

At first, Winter said they tried to get around the rules by running the farm as a “private club,” with “suggested donations” for their pizzas. But then the health, agriculture, and zoning inspectors all visited on the same day. The farm closed for the 2013 season to comply with regulations, adding sidewalks, bathrooms and upgrades to its kitchen.

Making those updates wasn’t easy. The price tag for a new building, kitchen and brick oven was $200,000 the family didn’t have. Winter worried they would have to close down for good.

But then, he said, the community stepped up, with a Kickstarter campaign raising more than $7,000 and a number of local business owners raising around $25,000 each. While the leaders had a business interest (weddings are a boost to hotels, flower shops and liquor stores), Winter teared up when he talked about the commitment.

Today, the building is paid off, and the family is getting calls from others interested in starting similar businesses. They’re happy to help. Winter said he hopes that someday, there will be all sorts of boutique businesses throughout the countryside. He wants people in town to have the same chance to connect with the land that he did as a kid, gardening and spending weekends on his grandparents’ farm.

Goodbye McMansion

Winter beams with fatherly pride at what his own kids, Max and Hannah, have learned from the farm. Growing, selling and serving food, he said, “they know the value of a dollar.” He doesn’t think they would have learned that if they stayed in their new, self-described McMansion on 40 acres, which they could afford from Winter’s success selling new houses in Shakopee and Woodbury during the boom years.

Moving to a 108-year-old farm house was an adjustment, though, especially for Hannah, who was in her early teens then. Asked if she recalled her reaction to learning about the move, she laughed. Yes, she said. “Are we seriously moving to a farm from this brand new house?”

It wasn’t long before her ideas changed. “Once we settled in,” she said, “and pizza started, you got to realize it’s an awesome place to live.” She’s learned “how things actually work owning a business,” she said, and has talked with her parents about taking on more responsibility with it in the future.

“They have joked, ‘You’re going to own it someday, right?’ ” Her brother, Max, the farm handyman, is also interested.

“We always joke about who’s going to get it,” she said.

For now, the Winter family runs pizza nights as a team. Tammy, who worked for years at Northfield’s Brick Oven Bakery, is the crust specialist and runs the kitchen. Max is on the pizza assembly line, along with family friends. Hannah runs the front counter, and Pat roves around as manager, “putting out fires” and chatting up the customers.

It is an idyllic setup, and it’s given him a perspective that, even six years after the recession, not many people would express.

“It’s a good thing,” he said, “the economy went to hell.”

 

Graison Hensley Chapman is a Twin Cities freelancer. He can be reached at graisonhc@icloud.com.