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 is 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.