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Family Farms Turn To Pizza For Fast Cash And Customers

Aug 19, 2015
Originally published on August 19, 2015 3:46 pm

Across the U.S., small farmers have been struggling for years with low commodity prices and rising production costs. Even for organic farmers, who can justify higher prices, making a profit is tough.

But throughout the Midwest, a new farm-to-table strategy is giving a boost to some farmers.

"You're just seeing that farms are having difficulty covering their costs of production," says Sarah Lloyd of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. "The prices that are being paid to them in the market is not enough to cover their costs. One bright spot is you see people venturing into direct markets, and that's a way where they can have more control over their pricing."

It's a new way of doing business.

At Stoney Acres in Athens, Wis., the farmyard is transformed every Friday night between May and October — as hundreds of people come to order organic pizza. Two large, wood-fired ovens dominate the outdoor area between the barn and the farm's commercial kitchen. Old picnic tables are scattered across the yard.

On one summer evening, Brenda and Josh Murray order one of the simpler pizzas: pepperoni. All the ingredients, except the cheese, are grown on the farm. The cheese is made at a neighboring family farm. Even the pepperoni and sausage are from hogs raised at Stoney Acres.

Kat Becker and Tony Schultz, the owners of Stoney Acres, have been selling weekly shares of their produce through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. They also produce honey and supply vegetables to a local school. But pizza is opening a new frontier for their farm.

"We're developing some areas that are growing, but our CSA, which has been our backbone, which used to be about 85 percent of our income, is now a little bit less than 50 percent of our income," Becker says.

Becker and Schultz started making pizza in 2012, exploring it as a new way to both connect with consumers and infuse some cash into the farm. Becker says that on very busy nights they have made between 230 and 240 pizzas.

"But this whole summer kind of every week has broken a record," Becker says. "But assuming that people are splitting a pizza three ways, which I think is reasonable, that would be between 700 and 800 people on a busy night."

Some of those people come from Athens and simply order a pizza to go. Others drive from miles away, lingering here over dinner and conversation. It's estimated that there are now a few dozen farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa offering pizza nights.

While cutting out the middle man may be the business hook, there's clearly more to it.

Sarah Lakewood has been coming to pizza night at Stoney Acres since it started.

"I'd never experienced anything like it before," she says. "It got to the point where we were coming every week and, then, when we were here that last night the first summer, I felt like we were going to lose some friends for six months."

In the last decade, lots of family farmers have literally given up the farm. Innovations like pizza night offer a way to increase their odds of survival while offering a new social space for their customers.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Say you own a farm. You grow fresh vegetables. You can also make your own sausage and pepperoni. Might be something you can do with those ingredients, right? Well, across the U.S., farmers have been struggling. Production costs are higher, and what they produce is selling at lower prices. And so some farmers came up with an idea that was not so pie in the sky. Zoe Sullivan reports.

ZOE SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Stoney Acres Farm lies off a dirt road in Athens, Wis. Every Friday night, between May and October, the farmyard is transformed as hundreds of people come here to order organic pizza. Two large, wood-fired ovens dominate the outdoor area between the barn and the farm's commercial kitchen. Old picnic tables are scattered across the yard. Sarah Lloyd of the Wisconsin Farmers Union says this is a new way of doing business.

SARAH LLOYD: You're just seeing that farms are having difficulty covering their costs of production. The prices that are being paid to them in the market is not enough to cover their costs. One bright spot is you see people venturing into direct markets, and that's a way where they can have more control over their pricing.

BRENDA MURRAY: OK, we'll do the pepperoni, and then, do you want one more?

JOSH MURRAY: I would just stick with the...

SULLIVAN: Brenda and Josh Murray are ordering one of the simpler pizzas. All the ingredients, except the cheese, are grown here on this farm. The cheese is made in a neighboring family farm. Even the pepperoni and sausage is from hogs raised at Stoney Acres. Kat Becker and Tony Schultz have been selling weekly shares of their produce through a community-supported agriculture program. They also produce honey and supply vegetables to a local school. But pizza is opening a new frontier for their farm.

KAT BECKER: We're developing some areas that are growing, but our CSA, which has been our backbone, which used to be about 85 percent of our income, is now a little bit less than 50 percent of our income.

SULLIVAN: Becker and Schultz started making pizza in 2012, exploring it as a new way to both connect with consumers and infuse some cash into the farm.

BECKER: The last couple of weeks we've been making between 230 and 240 pizzas, but those have been our record nights.

SULLIVAN: Becker says she's not sure just how many people come here to pizza night every week.

BECKER: This whole summer kind of every week has broken a record. But assuming that people are splitting a pizza three ways, that would be somewhere between like 700 and 800 people on a busy night.

SULLIVAN: Some of those people come from neighboring Athens and simply order a pizza to go. Others drive from miles away, lingering here over dinner and conversation. It's estimated that there are now a few dozen farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa offering pizza nights.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Saneden. Saneden.

SULLIVAN: While cutting out the middleman may be the business hook, there's clearly more to it. Sarah Lakewood has been coming to pizza night since it started.

SARAH LAKEWOOD: I'd never experienced anything like it before, and it got to the point where we were coming every week. And then when we were here for the last night that first summer, I felt like we were going to lose some friends for six months (laughter).

SULLIVAN: In the last decade, lots of family farmers have literally given up the farm. Innovations like pizza night offer a way to increase their odds of survival while providing a new social space for their customers. For NPR News, I'm Zoe Sullivan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PIZZA DAY")

THE AQUABATS: (Singing) Friday was pizza day, the best of the week. All the kids would line up super early just to eat. Monday - hotdog, Tuesday - taco, Wednesday - hamburgers and chocolate milk. Thursday - sloppy Joes and burritos in a bag. Friday was pizza day, the best day of the week. It always came with salad and a side of cold green beans. Hooray for pizza day. Hooray for pizza day. I miss pizza day, the best day of the week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.