Field Day at Stoney Acres Farm in Athens, WI

Kat Becker with her youngest daughter, Maple, in front of the pizza ovens at Stoney Acres Farm. (Click on any picture in this post for a larger image.)
Kat Becker with her youngest daughter, Maple, in front of the pizza ovens at Stoney Acres Farm. (Click on any picture in this post for a larger image.)

Get out from behind that book to a farm field day, girlfriend! “Book learning” is absolutely indispensable to your education as a farmer. But, learning first hand from someone who’s been doing it for several years should be a critical part of your education, too.

The In Her Boots field days, offered through MOSES, are a fantastic way for women to learn from other women who are currently in the field (pun intended). This past Friday, August 15, Kat Becker & Tony Schultz opened their farm, Stoney Acres in Athens, WI, to workshop participants & pizza lovers alike.

Yes, Pizza! This is the first time I’ve heard of doing on-farm, wood-fired, Friday night pizzas as a money-making venture for a farm. It’s brilliant, IMO. Nearly all of their ingredients come from their farm: wheat, tomatoes, sausage, herbs, mushrooms. Cheese is the only thing that that they don’t do at the moment.

The workshop was facilitated by Lisa Kivirist, lead organizer for MOSES’ Rural Women’s Project.

Introductions, Everyone

Everyone started the day on the tables next to the pizza ovens, old barn, and grape vineyard.
Everyone started the day on the tables next to the pizza ovens, old barn, and grape vineyard.

We first gathered next to the wood-fired pizza ovens to get the day started at 10am. The 50+ participants went around the group introducing ourselves, including our city/county of origin and the factors that brought us to the workshop.

Then Kat went into her story. As this young mother of 3 nursed her youngest daughter she told us about the farm. Stoney Acres is actually the place where her husband grew up — and the couple is in the process of buying the farm on a land contract from his parents.

Their First Steps

Originally a dairy farm, and then rented to nearby conventional farmers, the couple has converted it to a diverse, certified organic operation starting 8 years ago (they are currently in their 9th season). It sounds like the majority of revenue comes from a combination of a large CSA (about 220 members) and the Friday night pizza venture.

The remodeled shed with PV solar array. Note pizza ovens in front of the shed.
The remodeled shed with PV solar array. Note pizza ovens in front of the shed.

One of the first things they did was completely remodel a very old, 80-some-foot, timber frame shed/barn. For about $70k they completely gutted it, raised it, poured a new concrete foundation & floor 30 feet away, and moved it. They then finished it off as their vegetable pack house, walk-in cooler, commercial kitchen, ADA restroom, and eating/multipurpose room (with a root cellar underneath that portion). This included an upgrade to the whole septic system, which the farm house desperately needed.

Solar panels and a wood-heat-gasification system were added later; but in-floor tubing was placed when the concrete was newly poured. The system not only heats the shed/barn, but a nearby greenhouse and the water for the commercial kitchen.

When putting in their commercial kitchen they worked very closely with the local health department. They were very careful to know all the codes and laws through the whole process in order to keep costs down. One issue was an Ansul fire suppression system over the commercial stove. Because they knew the fine details of the law (from the WI Department of Ag) they were able to avoid being required to install that several-thousand dollar Ansul system.

Lesson learned: know the laws and codes for a commercial kitchen as well as — or better than — your inspection people. Also, be ready to buy resale/auction kitchen equipment from old and out-of-business restaurants and store it until your kitchen project is ready for it.

Random Notes From the Field Day

Within the course of almost 6 hours on their farm I jotted down notes in my smart phone as we went along (as well as taking lots of pics). Here are some of the better gems I picked along the way from Kat….

1) If you’re doing a value-added product like pickles you can put the required labeling on the bottom of the jar. This lets the consumer see the beautiful product inside the jar. However, they don’t do a whole lot of value-added products as they feel there’s not a great ROI on it.

2) If you’re trying to convince family members of the viability of an organic farm operation bring them along to the MOSES Organic Conference in February. It’s a wonderful demonstration of the magnitude of organic and sustainable agriculture in the U.S. today. This conference is attended by more women, young people, and families than any other agricultural event.

3) By integrating pizza into their farm revenue mix they’ve demonstrated to the community they’re “kind of normal”. Pizza is about as mainstream American as you can get. (There will always be people in your farming community that see your organic operation as a bit weird; pizza helps soften that image.)

4) For the wheat and other small grains they raise they use the best quality for their pizza dough. The lower quality grains go to animal feed for their chickens and pigs.

5) They use a NutriMill for grinding their wheat, and a large stand mixer for making their large quantity of pizza dough.

6) They needed to acquire a catering license to publicly serve food to people. Do research with your State, County, and City to find out what’s required in your locale. Work with the Health Department before starting your project! Know the laws better than the inspectors.

7) Bremer Insurance (out of North Dakota) and Mt. Morris Insurance (out of Wisconsin) are two insurance agencies they’ve successfully worked with.

8) Hansen & Young for online auctions for food equipment (and other stuff).

Kat in their very simple --- and economical --- commercial kitchen. Commercial stove and vent hood on right, code-approved wash sink next to Kat, open air shelving, and washable walls throughout.
Kat in their very simple — and economical — commercial kitchen. Commercial stove and vent hood on right, code-approved wash sink next to Kat, open air shelving, and washable walls throughout.

9) If you’re cooking your own meat (for pizza sausage) you need a commercial stove. Ask local restaurants if they know about older kitchen equipment that’s for sale at possible deep discounts. They’ve picked up equipment for their kitchen for less than the value of the metal in the items!

10) Put your best produce in your CSA boxes! The rest can go to farmers’ market. Your CSA members have made a vote of confidence in your farm by buying those shares — reward them with great produce. If your CSA members see better stuff at your farm market stand you may lose them as a subscriber.

11) Check out Commercial Recycling in Medford, WI for CSA bins. Uline has good prices on plastic bags for veggies and bins.

12) Focus on Energy and REAP have grants available for renewable energy systems on farms. The grant applications are becoming more competitive, though, so be prepared for rejection.

13) In addition to the pizza they host 3 on-farm events for their CSA members: a pancake breakfast, a barn dance, and a pumpkin pick & pie day (maybe she meant pizza-pie?).

14) They accidentally planted tall fescue in their pastures and found out later that cows don’t really like it! They thought all fescue was the same. So, if you have cows make sure you plant the right kind of fescue in your grass mix.

15) Their small, mixed, grass-fed cattle herd is generally a cross between Galloways and Herefords. They like the Herefords for their fat and weight gain, and the Galloways for their winter hardiness.

16) Make sure your insurance carriers — even Workman’s Comp — knows that you have volunteers and “worker’s share” people working on your farm. (A “worker’s share” is where someone exchanges 4 hours a week of on-farm work for a CSA share — which is technically a barter arrangement.)

17) Getting your kids involved in the farm: give them something to sell at market. If they can see a personal profit that they can pocket that’s a great motivator.

18) They have a couple mid-sized tractors, but neither are high enough to go over veggie beds from about mid-summer onward. So they end up not being able to cultivate as much as they’d like, and the majority of weeding has to be done by hand and hoe. Acquiring a new tractor with a higher carriage is top on their list.

Picture Time

Washing a bin of greens as it comes from the field into the pack house.
Washing a bin of greens as it comes from the field into the pack house.
The veggie pack house end of the shed. Bins roll down the conveyor and washed, sorted, and prepared to go into the cooler, which is off to the left. The drain in the floor leads out to the pigs' wallow area.
The veggie pack house end of the shed. Bins roll down the conveyor and washed, sorted, and prepared to go into the cooler, which is off to the left. The drain in the floor leads out to the pigs’ wallow area.
This is the new wood-fired pizza oven, waiting for it's rustic stone veneer. This day was the first they were firing it up for pizza night. Fires are started at the beginning of the day and nursed all day long to get the internal thermal heat up high enough for baking.
This is the new wood-fired pizza oven, waiting for it’s rustic stone veneer. This day was the first they were firing it up for pizza night. Fires are started at the beginning of the day and nursed all day long to get the internal thermal heat up high enough for baking.
Not the greatest picture, but this is their raised bed maker. Because their soil is very heavy in clay it's critical to get the veggie growing area up a few inches to drain better. This machinery not only forms the bed, but lays plastic (for mulch) down as it rolls along.
Not the greatest picture, but this is their raised bed maker. Because their soil is very heavy in clay it’s critical to get the veggie growing area up a few inches to drain better. This machinery not only forms the bed, but lays plastic (for mulch) down as it rolls along.
Raised beds of sweet potatoes demonstrating how well the black plastic mulch works. They've had a very wet year, so weeds have been a real challenge.
Raised beds of sweet potatoes demonstrating how well the black plastic mulch works. They’ve had a very wet year, so weeds have been a real challenge.
Oak logs on the north side of the shed waiting to grow shitake mushrooms. The window air conditioner cools their walk-in cooler --- much more economical than a traditional cooling system.
Oak logs on the north side of the shed waiting to grow shitake mushrooms. The window air conditioner cools their walk-in cooler — much more economical than a traditional cooling system.
Closer view of the shitake-innoculated oak logs.
Closer view of the shitake-innoculated oak logs.
They have 3 greenhouses on their farm. Kat likes this one the best ---by far. It's by Ledgewood Farms out of New Hampshire.
They have 3 greenhouses on their farm. Kat likes this one the best —by far. It’s by Ledgewood Farms out of New Hampshire.
Inside the greenhouse pictures above.
The inside of the greenhouse. This shows the copper piping bringing in hot water and routed through a blower (the louvered box) to heat the space in the winter. A couple feet of rigid foam on the north side help to insulate it in the winter.
Lovely trellised, greenhouse tomatoes in another one of their greenhouses. This might be considered a high tunnel --- I don't think the space is heated.
Lovely trellised, greenhouse tomatoes in another one of their greenhouses. This might be considered a high tunnel — I don’t think the space is heated.
Their portable chicken house is built on a hay wagon and surrounded by electric poultry netting.
Their portable chicken house is built on a hay wagon and surrounded by electric poultry netting.

If you’re interested in attending your own field day make sure to check out Organic Field Days organized by MOSES. Even if you’re not planning on becoming certified organic they are still a wealth of information on sustainable farming practices happening today.

And thanks to Kat and Tony for opening up their farm!!


Addendum: a friend of mine pointed out another source for used and discounted commercial kitchen equipment. Fein Brothers in Milwaukee has a show room of new equipment on the main floor, and used equipment on the second floor.

She also suggested finding used restaurant equipment or washable wall panels at architectural salvage stores. If you know the requirements for your future commercial kitchen — and have a place to store the equipment — then you’re in a much better position to snag really good deals when they come up. Be ready and you could save thousands on your commercial kitchen project!

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