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Farm Dinners: Some stories from the field

Some call them "Culinary Tourism." Others call them "Farm to Fork." Whatever they're called, dinners on a farm or ranch are increasingly popular with farm fans, and can be profitable for the farmers who host them. We talked with farmers from Full Belly Farm in Capay Valley, Bloomingcamp Ranch in the San Joaquin Valley, and Mother Lode Harvest in the Sierra Nevada foothills to learn a little about their on-farm dinners. Here are their stories and tips for other farmers considering farm dinners:

  • Photo credit: Ashley Muir Bruhn, Hither and Thither
    Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, western Yolo County, is now in the second year of offering monthly farm dinners to the public from March through October. Second generation farm partners, Jenna and Amon Muller, prepare the meals for their 30 guests each month in the fully permitted kitchen at their new event facility on the 400 acre farm. No additional permits are required, as Yolo County allows farmers to organize up to eight small events of this type each year. No alcohol is served to guests at the Full Belly Farm dinners.

    The popular dinners always sell out, often many months ahead of time, with marketing limited to the CSA newsletter, the website and occasional social media. The pricing is two-tiered: CSA members pay $70 per person, and the general public pays $80 per person. Because Jenna and Amon have small children, they are careful to make their dinners family-friendly. Children seven to thirteen years old pay half price, and children younger than seven are free. All registration is done by phone, and the personal attention helps groups who want to eat together be able to register for the same dinner. Here is a blog post from a recent Full Belly Farm dinner guest

    Some tips from Full Belly Farm:
    • It's nice to have a facility that is weatherproof, and to be able to set up the tables inside when weather is stormy.
    • Try to arrange for plenty of shade in hot weather.
    • A tour wagon helps when it's time to take people on a farm tour.
    • Summer dinners start later due to the heat.
    • You may need accessible restroom facilities.
    • Set out a few extra seats, so that guests can sit with who they want to, rather than assigning seating
    • Don't be afraid to experiment with seasonality - using new potatoes and other fresh young crops.
    • Request information about food allergies and special diets so that you can do your best to accommodate guests with menu substitutions.
    • One challenge is that sometimes people don't want to drive home after dinner. It would be great to have more lodging options nearby to be able to refer them to.
  • Dinner table set at Bloomingcamp RanchBloomingcamp Ranch in Oakdale, Stanislaus County, is also in their second year of offering regular farm dinners to the public. Last year farm owners Courtney and Matthew Smith put on four dinners; this year they're planning six, starting in May. In Stanislaus County, farmers are allowed to put on up to six events each year, but they are required to register the dates and number of people expected with the county sheriff, and to pay a fee, according to Courtney.

    Although Bloomingcamp Ranch has a licensed bakery kitchen on site, the Smiths prefer to contract with a different local chef for each dinner, selecting chefs from within 30 miles of their Oakdale farm. The farmers give the chefs a list of what will be available on their farm and from other local sources. The chefs prepare a menu and a food order from this list, and Bloomingcamp delivers the order to them at no charge a day before the dinner. The chefs prepare the dinners in their own licensed production kitchens and bring the food already prepared to the farm. The farm dinner menus are unique and creative, not options from the chefs' regular restaurant menus.  The Smiths generally provide all the ingredients and pay the chefs a per person fee for their time, sometimes trading part of the fee in Bloomingcamp Ranch pies or other baked goods for the chefs to serve in their restaurants.

    Courtney also teams up with a local winery or brewery for each dinner. The winery or brewery uses their own tasting permit and pairs wine or beer to pour with each course of the dinner.

    To prepare for hosting these 40-guest dinners, Matthew and Courtney built their own tables. They rent chairs, linens, glasses and dishes for each event, and provide a crew of three or four servers as wait staff. Each dinner is scheduled for a Friday night during the summer months when outdoor seating by the pond is pleasant. The dinners start at 5:30 p.m. with hors d'oeuvres, and are finished by 8:30 p.m. As the Smiths do not have outdoor lighting, they try to complete the dinner service before it gets dark.

    Marketing is primarily word of mouth, with promotions on Facebook, the farm website and in the local paper. The participating chefs, vintners and brewers also market the events, and Bloomingcamp Ranch promotes their restaurants, catering services and tasting rooms. Guests pay $75 per person or $125 per couple. Reservations are taken by phone or online. The dinners usually sell out and have a wait list, with people attending from as far away as the Bay Area. Courtney says that some local dinner guests use the dinners as an occasion to convince their Bay Area friends to visit the valley. 

    Some tips and thoughts from Courtney Smith,Bloomingcamp Ranch:
    • Allow plenty of time for coordinating all the people and tasks needed for each dinner. It can take at least a couple of months to coordinate one of these events. When we get going, and have a dinner each month, sometimes I am barely able to get caught up. For this year, I have already scheduled the first four dinners, due to start in May.
    • Since the dinner site is by the walnut orchard but not close to the vegetable production area, we are not able to include a farm tour with the dinners. We are thinking about creating a video or picture display to illustrate the growing of the food people are eating, or perhaps creating an educational garden close by.
  • MotherLode Harvest logoMotherLode Harvest, a multi-farm CSA association near Jackson in Amador County licensed as a non-profit 501(c)5 organization, is planning its first public  farm dinner in June this year as a fundraising event for the association. Emily Beals, president of MotherLode Harvest, shared this report.

    The group's goal is to raise $1200 with this dinner to pay for an upgrade to their website. They are aiming for 60 guests, and hoping that many of the farmer-members of the association will be able to attend. In order to keep the event affordable for the farmers, the dinner will be priced at $35 for MotherLode Harvest members (including CSA subscribers) and $40 for non-members. Emily expects that most of the guests will be directly connected with MotherLode Harvest, and that most will come from within 50 miles of Jackson. Other fundraising activities at the dinner will include a silent auction and raffle. The dinner will be held at the farm of one of the association members who has a beautiful view of the Shenandoah Valley. Guests will be entertained with singing and dancing and talks about the solstice.

    Rather than paying a caterer to prepare the dinner, the group will cook it themselves in a rented commercial kitchen. The food will be at least 80 percent sourced locally, with much of the menu grown specifically for the dinner by association members. Some members will donate locally produced food, and others will be paid the wholesale price for their products. Local wineries will contribute wine for the dinner. Future Farmers of America (FFA) students will help serve the dinner.

    For this event, the association needed to obtain insurance and an alcohol permit to allow them to serve beer and wine. They will be renting tables and chairs, using compostable plates, and borrowing glassware and silverware. A local farmer is growing sunflowers for table decorations. In order to make sure they are ready, the group will be doing a complete rehearsal walk-through of the dinner a month before their event. Marketing activities include a flier that will be mailed to everyone on the mailing list and announcements in the regular newsletter.

    Since this is the first dinner planned by the group, Emily promises to let us know any lessons learned after the event. She offers this advice:
    • Everything needs to be planned well ahead of time.MotherLode Harvest started planning four months ahead of the dinner in order to tackle these needs:
      • getting people on board to help
      • getting the menu set
      • making sure that local growers are growing the needed ingredients
      • getting volunteers assigned to jobs
      • renting needed things, including the porta-potty
Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2016 at 10:50 AM
 
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