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Growing Community Through Pizza

    Cory Aldinger

When Tom and Maren Beard purchased the land that would become Luna Valley Farm, there’s no way they would have known that some day hundreds of people would flock to their fields for an unlikely crop: pizza.

Located about 20 minutes northeast of downtown Decorah, Luna Valley Farm is an oasis for nature lovers and pizza enthusiasts alike. While the property is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, Luna Valley Farm is also a working farm. As Maren says, the Beards are primarily farmers and secondarily pizza farmers. Many of the vegetables that show up on weekly pies are from the farm (or others locally) and the pork, beef and lamb is sourced directly from Luna Valley Farms.

On any given Friday or Saturday night, more than 100 pizzas from the ovens in the farm’s renovated barn make their way to the tables and picnic blankets of the Beard’s guests. As the seasons change, so do the pizzas on the weekend menu. More traditional pies are paired with fan-favorite combinations like roasted beets with goat cheese crumble or pear and prosciutto.

“People talk about farming being a lot of work—it’s sunup to sundown. I’ve heard the same about restaurants. So when you put the two together, oh man,” Maren says.

But even though the work can be hard and the hours long, what Luna Valley Farms has been able to bring to its local community has proven to be priceless.

Starting a pizza farm

The first time the Beards visited the land, they knew it was special. While the couple purchased the farm from a neighbor who had been born and raised there, the land was homesteaded by Norwegian immigrants and has a log cabin at its base.

“We both value old things and breathing new life into the past,” Maren says. Luna Valley Farm seemed like the perfect opportunity. For the first few years the Beards owned the property, the farm was purely a working farm, raising livestock and growing grains for feed and other nearby businesses.

But everything changed in late summer of 2016. To celebrate the couple’s birthdays and anniversary, Maren and Tom decided to take a road trip across Minnesota and Wisconsin to several other pizza farms. It was then they had an idea.

“On the way home we were both pretty quiet,” she says. “If you know Tom, you know he’s always pretty quiet. One of us—probably me—broke the silence.”

At the time, Maren was working at Luther College’s Center for Sustainable Communities, which coordinates sustainability efforts on campus across the region. The pair wondered how they could do something like they’d experienced on their own land.

“We love hosting dinners,” she says. “We love growing good foods. We believe in this local food system and bringing people together in an increasingly divided country and community.”

They wrote a business plan and entered a local small business pitch competition, which helped them raise some of the initial money needed to convert their brain into a kitchen and restrooms for guests.

The Beards also launched a pizza CSA, which—similar to traditional farm CSAs that help farmers raise the capital they need before the growing season begins—gave Luna Valley Farm the boost it needed to get its pizza enterprise off the ground.

After planning and prepping (and a few test nights with family and friends), the farm’s inaugural pizza nights were held in the fall of 2017. “The first night was like the first day of school,” Maren says. “We thought, ‘Is no one going to come?’”

But people came. That first night, Luna Valley farm sold 97 pizzas and the rest is history.

Making pizza during a pandemic

Given the global pandemic, this year has looked a bit different at Luna Valley Farm. The Beards decided to delay the start of their normal pizza season, opting to postpone opening to July instead of May. The family found ways to help their community during a time when many were worried about their food supply chain and struggled to find meat at grocery stores.

Through the farm’s Resilience Boxes they were able to make use of the cuts of meat in their freezers while supporting families in their community at the same time. Through April and May, Luna Valley Farm delivered boxes filled with meat from their farm, vegetables from nearby growers, locally roasted coffee, craft beer and more to between 40 and 60 homes per week.

In June pizza was available to-go only, and in July, true pizza nights finally resumed—though with some modifications. Instead of showing up throughout the evening and waiting in line for pizza, visitors are required to make a reservation and pre-order their pizza. Still, even during a global pandemic, the pizza lovers just keep on coming.

“In normal times we have a line,” Maren says. “Now we have people wear masks and do have some tables, but people have just been amazing at distancing naturally. We think it’s pretty magical for people just to get out of their own four walls and do something fun.”

After months of quarantine earlier in the summer, it’s easy to see how the business is booming. Even with requiring reservations, Luna Valley Farm is still selling well over 200 pizzas when Maren cuts off pre-orders for the week. The property’s platform tents—available to rent on weekends only—are also completely booked through the end of the season with visitors looking to unplug and unwind somewhere socially distant.

But the Beards are noticing a difference in their guests this year as well.

“It’s amazing to see the difference in guests this year,” she says. “I think this is changing people to appreciate slowing down and not being booked solid, enjoying more simple pleasures.”

Luna Valley Farm’s pizza nights continue Fridays and Saturdays in September and Fridays in October. Reservations and pizza pre-orders can be made on their website, LunaValleyFarm.com.

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