Recent University of Wisconsin-Stout graduate Elena Carroll loved traveling the countryside of Wisconsin and Minnesota and getting a taste of the rural Midwest while conducting research for a farm food publication.

Carroll, of Dallas, Texas, who graduated May 4 with a master’s degree in applied psychology, interviewed diners at seven on-farm businesses.

She created the survey for Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that provides educational resources for farmers and rural entrepreneurs. Her findings are part of a new, free publication, “Come and Get It: What You Need to Know to Serve Food on Your Farm.”

The publication guides farmers who are interested in understanding regulations and provides information from businesses that are profiting from the growing on-farm food trend. Along with farmer interviews, it’s the first time customers were interviewed about their experiences.

The 120-page publication is available for free from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The project was funded under a North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Partnership grant, a funding opportunity to foster cooperation between agriculture professionals and small groups of farmers and ranchers to catalyze sustainable agriculture education.

Carroll, an associate institutional planner for the Planning, Assessment, Research and Quality office at UW-Stout, found out about the internship opportunity from Libby Smith, program director for the Master of Science in applied psychology. Smith had been contacted by Lisa Kivirist, coordinator of the Come and Get It project and a national advocate for women in sustainable agriculture.

Smith was impressed by Carroll’s research. “Elena went above and beyond,” Smith said. “She used it as an opportunity to shine.”

Carroll was attracted to the project because it was the first of its kind. “It gave me a chance to see Wisconsin and Minnesota, to be on these farms and working with customers and learning more about their initiatives,” Carroll said.

“I loved the site visits. I loved meeting the owners of the establishments and hearing from them how they got started. They followed their dreams. It made it a memorable experience for me seeing people doing what they love and being able to use it in ways to enrich the community and the state,” Carroll added.

Carroll collected the data during the fall and summer of 2018. Of the farms surveyed in Wisconsin and Minnesota a total of 151 participants answered. All of the customers enjoyed their overall experience, and 96% said they would recommend it to someone else. She also collected direct quotes from customers. A total of 98% expressed satisfaction with their customer service and 99.2% with the quality of the food.

Kivirist, who lives near Monroe, said Carroll’s research gives farmers more information on customers’ attitudes about on-farm food and helps farmers decide if it is a good business for them.

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“It had never been done before,” Kivirist said of the research. “We know people are attending the events, but what does it mean? Thanks to her research we are able to say there are opportunities for farmers to get into this, and it identifies those opportunities.”

One opportunity, in particular, is offering family-friendly activities, Kivirist said. “There are so many places that are not family-friendly, where kids can be kids and families can have a good meal.”

Also, being on a farm will help educate children about where their food comes from, part of the move toward a more local food market, Kivirist said. “Elena was such a professional and so independent,” Kivirist said. “She left a great impression with all the farm partners.”

Farms that were part of Renewing the Countryside included:

  • Stoney Acres Farm, owner Tony Schultz, Athens, pizza
  • Borner Farm Project, owners Diane and Baard Weber, Prescott, pizza
  • Campo di Bella, owner Mary Ann and Marc Bellazzini, Mt. Horeb, varying menu
  • Dream Acres Farm, owners Eva Barr and Todd Juzwiak, Wykoff, Minn., pizza
  • Squash Blossom Farm, owners Susan Waughtal and Roger Nelson, Oronoco, Minn., pizza
  • Suncrest Gardens Farm, owner Heather Secrist, Cochrane, pizza
  • Together Farms, owners Stephanie and Andy Schneider, Mondovi, burgers
  • Moonstone Farm, owners Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen, Montevideo, Minn., hot dog food stand

Together Farms started in 2017 and had its first full-year schedule in 2018 serving grass-fed beef burgers on Thursday and Friday evenings and Saturdays. “I think what I enjoy the most is having people able to interact with the animals and see what a working farm is like,” Stephanie Schneider said.

Many people who visit the farm are from Eau Claire or La Crosse, traveling 30 to 45 minutes one way. Locals also visit for the food because there are few restaurants in the area, Schneider noted.

Having information available for farmers thinking about an on-farm food service is important, she noted. Issues include finding staff, startup costs and operating a business that relies on the weather, she added.

Carroll’s data included:

  • How customers discovered the farms: word of mouth 68% and paid advertising 18%. She noted that customers probably learned about the farm through several avenues; word of mouth is important but should be supported by advertising and social media.
  • Top three things customers would like to be offered: accommodations for hot days such as shaded areas or water activities; tables and chairs; and seeing, petting and feeding animals
  • Types of customers: families 50%, groups of friends 25%, couples 22%, singles 3%

Carroll enjoys research. “I love to learn, and research is a way to do that,” she noted. “I like that research has an approach I can follow. For this project in particular, I felt confident and prepared going in because of the research and evaluation courses I took at Stout. I got to put my education to work and had fun doing it.”

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