I’m an off-the-beaten-path kind of gal, so my heart skipped at the prospect of a spring road trip in search of tucked-away Wisconsin and Minnesota pizza farms.
Pizza farms are farms where most or all of the ingredients for pizzas are grown or produced on-site. At these farms, you pull up a camp chair or a picnic blanket and sink your teeth into fresh-out-of-the-brick-oven homegrown pizza pies made by great farmers.
They are active farms with limited hours and days for serving pizzas. They mainly operate based on word-of-mouth, doing little advertising, and in some cases, they actively shun media attention (one farm declined an interview based on the fact that they could barely keep up with existing clientele).
At some of the farms, you bring your own utensils and abide by the pack-in, pack-out rule, not leaving anything behind. In peak summer season, you might wait a few hours for your pizza, since they are cooked one at a time in a wood-fired oven.
To get to some of the best ones, you’ll have to navigate the twisty, remote gravel roads that branch off Wisconsin’s Great River Road. Your cell phone might lose its signal while your sense of adventure might get a boost, coupled with beautiful views of the Mississippi River and the lush, rolling hills of the heartland unfolding at every turn.
One of the oldest pizza farms, operational since 1998, AtoZ is only open on Tuesday nights from March through September and located in Stockholm, Wisconsin. The rest of the days are dedicated to growing the food and doing the work required to support pizza night, which offers seasonal flavors to tempt the palate.
In spring comes the “Allium Family Reunion,” AtoZ’s riff on onion toppings, which involves roasting, braising and caramelizing to bring out surprisingly delicious combinations served up on the farm’s own organic sourdough whole grain crust, usually made from wheat grown and ground at the farm.
“I feel that when you eat something that tastes delicious, it’s good for you,” said owner Robbi Bannen. “I can’t change the world in too many ways, but I can give them that.”
Open Tuesday nights March through October, 4:30 to 8 p.m. The 2016 season starts March 15 and ends Oct. 25. First come, first served. Beer and wine available for purchase. Bring plates, utensils, chairs, snacks, side dishes and soft drinks if desired. Pack it in; pack it out — bring trash and recycling with you when you leave.
As I pull up to Suncrest Gardens Farm in Cochrane, Wisconsin, I notice goats and chickens, milling about the property and families relaxing at picnic tables and on the playground. A sign advertises “CAMPFIRE SMORES $1, STICKS BELOW, PLEASE RETURN.”
Owner Heather Secrist is already shuttling pizzas in and out of the oven using a long-handled paddle soon while the early dinner crowd trickles in.
Suncrest Gardens, like many other pizza farms, operates a community-supported agriculture program, and the abundance of seasonal produce like arugula, asparagus and radishes find their way onto the menu in interesting ways.
“The pizza crust is a blank canvas,” Secrist tells me. They use what is available, turning surplus kale into flavorful pestos, along with locally sourced mozzarella cheese and sausage processed locally from farm-raised hogs. “It’s really fun to kind of push the envelope,” she says.
Open Fridays only in May and September, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays in June, July and August, 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. First come, first served. Gluten-free available. Beer, wine and soft drinks are available for purchase. Bring your own chairs, plates and utensils if desired.
The atmosphere is amped for romance at this open-air 1896 barn in Nelson, restored by owner Pamela Taylor, a mainframe computer designer who purchased the property in 1991 and opened for business in 2006 with a dream to serve 40 pizzas a weekend. They make about 20 times that number each weekend night now.
“I loved to cook and I loved growing things,” she says of the dream that has now carried her to expanding the farm’s kitchen and a newly restored barn for hosting weddings.
Customer favorites include an Alaskan pizza, featuring a cream cheese base topped with smoked salmon, vidalia onions, fresh dill and capers; a Southwest pizza featuring a house-made chorizo made from local meat; and a Greek pizza with lamb, kalamata olives, artichoke and garlic olive oil base.
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 5 to 9 p.m. The 2016 season starts May 20 and ends Sept. 25. First come, first served. Gluten-free available. Beer, wine and soft drinks are available for purchase. Dogs allowed on leash.
This pizza farm is one of the most accessible from the Twin Cities, about a 30-minute drive west from Minneapolis in Long Lake, Minnesota, but it’s every bit as remote in spirit as the other farms.
The farm is known for its heirloom tomatoes (they grow more than 50 varieties) and dahlias, but on select Saturdays (by reservation only), Two Pony Gardens serves a limited menu: pizza margherita or a seasonal special (recent offerings included morel mushrooms and melon and prosciutto combinations).
Along with your pizza, during select events you can enjoy activities like guided walks through the woods and gardens, honeybee demonstrations, horse and carriage rides and live music.
Open select dates May through October by reservation only — check the farm’s website for links to upcoming events. Bring your own plates, utensils, side dishes, desserts and beverages. Pack it in; pack it out.
Cynthia J. Drake is an Austin, Texas-based freelance writer and author of Budget Travel for the Genius. Follow her on Instagram.